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Feeding more than stomachs

Members of the student organization Project Downtown (PD) serve more than food to those living in Tampa homeless shelters. Their weekly visits come with conversations.

On Friday, PD traveled to two different areas of downtown Tampa to feed the homeless and form relationships with them.

Nadir Bakali, a senior majoring in finance and president of PD, said when the organization first started in 2005, the idea was to keep returning to the area. They are now seeking to obtain nonprofit status, he said.

“At the beginning, we didn’t have the amounts of food donated that we have today,” he said. “It was only a banana and water. So we tried to specialize in having conversations.”

Members work in different areas based on their gender. Males hand out sandwiches and water at Salvation Army located at the intersection of Florida and Henderson avenues in Tampa, while women go to the Hospitality House, which is part of the Salvation Army, to bring food, play with children and talk to mothers.

Emma Goines, 21, said she is living at the Hospitality House after being kicked out of her home when she became pregnant. She has a 1-and-a-half-year-old girl and is expecting a boy soon, she said.

Goines said she has learned there are several people who are willing “to help (her) become self sufficient” at the Hospitality House, and she has created a goal to finish school, go to college and have her own home.

Gloria Flournoy, the Hospitality House program supervisor, said she has heard many similar stories throughout her 12 years at the center.

“Our door is constantly revolving,” she said.

According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, Florida has the third-largest homeless population in the U.S, and Hillsborough County holds the largest homeless population in Florida.

The 2011 Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County’s Homeless Count Survey reports about 17,755 men, women and children are homeless in Hillsborough County on any given night.

Bakali said the people who have been a part of PD for several years always mention that their relationships bring them back. On average, there are about 30 to 40 students who travel downtown every Friday to check up on the people they have built relationships with and try to help them out, he said.

Keila Lopez, a freshman majoring in biomedical sciences, attended PD for the second time because her first experience was “enlightening,” she said.

Lopez said she wants to continue being involved with PD since she likes that they are making a difference in the community of Tampa and “are helping out people who desperately need love and compassion.”

“A lot of people have stereotypes of the homeless being drug addicts, which some are, but a lot of (the homeless) are actually struggling to survive because of lack of employment,” she said.

Yasir Abunamous, a graduate student in medical school and former president of PD, has participated in PD for five years and said people need to act more to help others in our society.

“Instead of wasting your time on a Friday night, do something valuable,” he said.