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Tampa Hope offers shelter and social services to people facing homelessness

Residents living in tents at Tampa Hope don’t just get shelter. They get services like health care, job training and education to set them up for success outside the community.

George Baranello, 52, has had some rough years recently. He lived in and out of motels as he struggled to get by doing lawn care in South Tampa. He battled drug addiction and spent time in jail and rehab.

Then in December he got an opportunity to move into Tampa Hope, a community Catholic Charities was opening in East Tampa with help from the city.

ALSO READ: USF medical students are providing free health care to people without housing

The shelter is located a few blocks from Ybor City in a fenced lot with security on duty around-the-clock. Residents live in one of the 100 green camping tents that sit on wooden platforms. There are portable bathrooms and laundry facilities scattered throughout. A community center has a dining hall, classrooms and an occasional health clinic, and there is a garden growing outside.

Residents also get three meals a day and a case manager for support. Services like counseling and financial literacy classes helped Baranello stay sober and prepare to get a place of his own.

“It gave me an ambition that I am somebody, you know, because for a long time I always didn't believe in myself, I just went day by day," Baranello said. "And they gave me the courage that I am a different person and there's more goals for me.”

Man smiling
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
George Baranello said the support system at Tampa Hope helped him get a job and find a new home.

Baranello said he kept up with lawn care jobs while living at Tampa Hope, but staff eventually helped him get a new job with a community partner and helped him find an apartment, where he’s living now. They’re helping dozens of others do the same.

The goal, according to program director Cynthia Jones-Northington, is to give all who stay at Tampa Hope the tools to not just find a place to live, but to stay there.

Her team helps people get important documents like IDs and social security cards. But they also offer residents substance abuse and mental health counseling, GED classes and regular medical care.

“Homelessness comes in all phases, it's just not a moral failing, and so we want to be able to address that head on so that they can understand that there is support systems out here that can help them,” Jones-Northington said.

Catholic Charities started working with the city on a tent shelter in March 2020, when safer-at-home orders implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 made it difficult to house a large group of individuals in an indoor space. "Hillsborough Hope" opened temporarily for a couple months.

"By the time it closed, 80 individuals had been placed into permanent housing," Mayor Jane Castor said in a statement about plans to build the permanent location.

Woman stands smiling wearing a Tampa Hope t-shirt. Behind her are rows of green camping tents.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
As program director of Tampa Hope, Cynthia Jones-Northington joked she feels "like a mother with 100 kids." She said most people in the community support each other and pitch in to keep the place clean.

Catholic Charities modeled Tampa Hope off a similar site it runs in Pinellas that has housed more than 7,000 people since opening in 2007, executive director Maggie Rogers said during a recent forum on homelessness in Tampa.

Key to both communities' success, she said, are the numerous other organizations who help out, including Feeding Tampa Bay and Metropolitan Ministries, among others.

“We pride ourselves in our partnerships, nothing that Catholic Charities does we do alone,” Rogers said.

The average daily cost per person when the Tampa site is at full capacity is $28, according to marketing director Louis Ricardo. That’s far less than what the organization estimates it costs to put someone up in a motel with meals – $80 – or incarcerate them in a Hillsborough County jail – $145.

More than half the residents are considered chronically homeless, meaning they've struggled to find stable housing for a while. But others are new to the experience, like Jimmy Hester.

“I raised kids, got great grandkids and I never expected at 60 years old to have no place to go,” he said. “It could happen to anybody because it happened to me.”

Hester and his wife were living in Indiana when he said a bad real estate deal and knee injury left them without a home and him unable to work. They came to Florida looking for a warm place to live out of their tent but found Tampa Hope instead.

“They kept us from being in the street, that's an experience I don't want to experience,” he said.

Man wearing glasses stares the camera. Behind him are rows of green camping tents.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Jimmy Hestor, 60, had never experienced homelessness until recently. He wants the community to treat individuals in similar situations with empathy.
USF medical students are providing free health care to people without housing
Group of medical students stand around a patient in an exam room

Hester's wife was at work when he spoke and he eventually got a job too. They are saving up to move into an apartment.

But finding an affordable place isn't easy.

Tampa is one of the fastest growing markets in the country when it comes to rising housing costs and demand for property.

The community has already started to see a rise in the number of people without permanent housing.

A point-in-time count conducted by Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative earlier this year found 1,513 people were homeless, up 4% from 2020. This figure includes people living on the street, in emergency shelters, cars or other places that meet the federal government’s definition of being “literally homeless.”

Adding to the challenge of finding an available unit they can afford, many people experiencing homelessness face other barriers, according to Kayon Henderson, housing and community development manager for the City of Tampa.

They may also have evictions, criminal records or other history that make landlords wary to lease to them.

"And we're always looking for more ‘friendly landlords’ who are saying, ‘Yes, we understand that you had a past but now that you're here and you're ready to move forward, we're part of the solution with you,'” said Henderson.

The city awarded vacant lots to developers to build more affordable housing and has invested more than $750,000 in Tampa Hope so far.

Man sits on a walker underneath a tree
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Arthur Shuler hasn't had a place of his own to live in for about three years. He said he's looking forward to hosting his family once he does.

Catholic Charities plans to build 200 cottages at the site, which would triple capacity and allow residents to live more comfortably in units with electricity, heat and air conditioning. Officials say they hope to break ground later this year.

In the meantime, they'll continue to help people staying in the tents find permanent homes, like Arthur Shuler, 63. He was one of the first people to move onto the site and had expected to be out by May. Months later, he's still searching for an apartment.

“One of my goals is my daughter and them [family], they're like, ‘Daddy when are you going to get your place?’ They're ready to come down and visit me or whatever,” Shuler said, getting emotional. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

He hopes he won't have to wait much longer.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.