April - June 2009, Other

A Day in the Life of a ‘Project Downtown Tampa’ Volunteer

Homeless Coalition Begins Bi-Annual Census

By Khadijah Rivera


Despite the fact that it’s 1:00 o’clock in the morning, I am exhausted, and my bones ache, my mind remains in a whirl-wind of activity from the events of the day, so here I sit, pen in hand.

I spent the day as a volunteer assisting with the Homeless Coalitions’ bi-annual census.

The volunteers were organized into teams that would work in shifts. The first shift was slated to begin at 4:00 AM on a day that began with temperatures that had plummeted overnight, and a steady rainfall. I remember feeling thankful that I had volunteered to work the night shift.

As the dinner hour approached, I joined my fellow teammates at a pre-designated deployment site.

Volunteers were equipped with a list of soup kitchens, forms, pens, and instructions for conducting interviews and looking out for one another’s safety.

Initial Observations

The ‘New Life’ community, a church with urine soaked carpeting and bedding. There were three coolers filled with food that looked like they had been set out for stray animals. ‘New Life’ community members actually paid money to stay there, under the guise that food was free. Personally, I would have opted for a park bench.

One of the men I interviewed told me that he had slept in a cardboard box the night before, and had come to the church to warm up and get some free bread. The man had been living in the streets for over six months and was thin and worn down by life.

What amazed me most throughout the night was hearing about the length of time many interviewees had been homeless. The majority had been in the streets for roughly a year-and-a-half. One interviewee, from Detroit, had been homeless for less than a week.

Deeper Into the Night

With the passage of the dinner hour, the homeless disbanded and the census taking process became a little more difficult.

As my team passed along its charted course between Fowler and Fletcher streets, we ferreted out the homeless along railroad tracks, in boarded-up buildings and alleys, using flashlights and blankets to coax them into being interviewed.

We found a couple sleeping in a wooded area who, with the promise of free toiletries, came out to be interviewed.

Just past eleven we found a group of six men bundled up against a warehouse. They were too cold to accept our invitation for an interview. One of the men finally blinked at me and I motioned for a teammate to step in as I approached a motionless, round bundle curled-up against a doorway. The bundle turned out to be a man so cold that he seemed frozen in time.

I found myself making a silent prayer that he would not die like that – abandoned by mankind and lost within himself.

Final Thoughts

The seven hours spent with my teammates experiencing the isolation, embarrassment, and destitution of Tampa’s homeless community has given me much to reflect on.

The bitter taste of the reality of homelessness expressed in this story may not move some, but it has made me all the more grateful to know that as a Muslim, I have a pillar of strength and hope for a future of untold treasures. My life has purpose, and my heart is full of love for God.

The experience of being part of the Tampa community’s homeless census taking process has made me all the more appreciative for the compassion God has put in my heart.

The census results will be used to help determine the housing, mental healthcare and employment training needs of the Tampa homeless community.

With the help of area newspaper affiliates and local television stations like Tampa Ten, perhaps those more fortunate will feel compelled to lend a helping hand.

Khadijah Rivera is the Project Downtown Tampa Outreach Coordinator and the director of PIEDAD.

© Khadijah Rivera 2007