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Founded in 1884, First Presbyterian Church has a long history of serving downtown Tampa and surrounding communities. As demographics have shifted over the years, downtown has seen a substantial increase in its homeless population. The most recent homeless census shows the count in downtown and nearby neighborhoods to be at least four hundred.
As a downtown church with so many homeless in our midst, we are called to serve “the least of these”. Accordingly, we have chosen the name Matthew 25 for our ministry.
We started with little vision, but recognition that serving those in need was a large part of our call as Christians. Over the years, we evolved from sharing our contemporary service coffee and bagels on Sunday morning to offering bag lunches during the week.
In 2011 we came to the realization that we should be doing more—but what? Recognizing we required help in further fleshing out a vision, we approached Metropolitan Ministries. Met Min suggested we become a Meal Site Partner (MSP). It operates thirty MSP throughout the Tampa Bay area. We asked what this would entail. The response was Met Min would provide a hot prepared meal. The partner provides the rest—facility, volunteers, supplies, etc. We said OK.
Once again, we grabbed hold of a thought and dove in. We envisioned serving thirty- forty hungry souls each Saturday morning with volunteers from First Pres. That’s how it started, but we soon found other churches were interested in participating. We now consistently serve over one hundred guests each Saturday morning with over four hundred volunteers coming from eight churches taking weekly rotations. We have at least thirty volunteers present each Saturday assigned to various tasks including serving food, greeting, registration, visiting with guests, and taking prayer requests.
We’ve grown, but with that growth, it became evident that more could and should be done to make life better for our guests. Clothing is always a big need for the homeless, as are blankets in the winter. So, we organized regular intake of serviceable used clothing coming from our volunteer base and participating churches. We also learned how to procure FEMA blankets working with the Salvation Army. We call our clothing closet Hope Depot.
Running shoes are another big need, as our clients are on their feet most of the day. We now organize an annual shoe drive working with Payless Shoe Source. Payless has been very generous in its pricing. Through financial support from our church members hundreds of pairs of new running shoes can be purchased each year at very reasonable cost.
We have also been fortunate to receive grants for nutritional enhancement. With these funds, fresh fruit and orange juice are purchased weekly to offer in addition to the hot meal provided by Met Min. A local vendor supplies the produce and juice, again, with very favorable pricing.
From modest beginnings, we have evolved by seeing additional needs and doing our best to meet them. One of the biggest un met needs the homeless face is health care. Their source for primary care is frequently the emergency room—a very expensive alternative for the taxpayer and general public. What to do?
We were fortunate to learn of and engage with Tampa Bay Street Medicine offered through USF Health. Through several meetings with TBSM and the participating medical students, we formed another partnership. First Pres provides a permanent indoor location within the church for a medical clinic serving the homeless. Supplies and equipment have been donated by a physician member of First Pres who also serves as principle liaison with TBSM.
The clinic now meets two Saturdays per month. Plans are in process to extend coverage to three Saturdays in conjunction with the USF College of Nursing. We typically see ten to twenty patients per session. The clinic is staffed by six to eight medical students under the direction of a faculty member or community based physician. Service is focused on primary care exams, with limited treatments and prescriptions. The intent is to circumvent the ER for relatively minor conditions. Referrals are made for those conditions requiring more acute care.
With the success of the TBSM clinic, we came to the realization that additional health care services could be provided. In recent months, working with the Hillsborough Department of Health, a survey was conducted to determine client interest in immunizations. Sixty guests have expressed interest. Immunizations will be offered on a quarterly basis starting in early 2018.
We also recognized that many of our clients were eligible for, but not enrolled in the Hillsborough County Health Care Plan. We have now started the enrollment process and hope to bring more homeless into the plan during 2018.
Further, plans are now in formulation to begin a foot clinic with the enthusiastic involvement of a young podiatrist having prior experience serving the homeless.
We started small and still are small, but we’ve made strides forward in serving those in need. As can be seen, we haven’t done it alone. We believe in community partnerships as an effective means to leverage resources and not duplicate effort. There’s much more to be done. With God’s grace, we will keep making progress in fulfillment of the biblical imperative to serve “the least of these”. Blessings to all.