The city of Tampa and the surrounding area is known for having one of the highest levels of homelessness among mid-sized U.S. cities, and one student organization is attempting to combat the problem by localizing an international initiative.
Partnering with other student groups and nonprofit organizations across Tampa, the student-run homelessness advocacy group Project Downtown will run a “Can-Paign” on campus throughout November, collecting canned food and hygiene products in an effort to tackle the problem of homelessness and hunger in Tampa Bay.
Can-Paign began as an international initiative in 2011, started by Muslims Without Borders. The group collected more than two tons of food to send across the world in areas affected by famine.
Megan Summers, a junior majoring in pre-social work and a member of Project Downtown, said the group, which regularly visits downtown Tampa’s homeless population, co-opted the initiative in order to make students aware that countries overseas aren’t the only ones suffering from hunger and homelessness.
“We encountered a man during our outreach one time who wasn’t homeless,” she said. “He had a home, but he was forced to choose between paying his electricity bill or buying groceries. It’s not just a third world problem. It’s right here in our own backyard.”
Working with the Council on Islamic-American Relations and Islamic Relief USA, Project Downtown will be setting up drop-off locations around Tampa and the USF campus for individuals to drop off non-perishable foods and hygiene products.
So far, the group has set up nine different donation sites across campus, including one at the bookstore and the Library.
For National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Month, USF Health will also be running its own canned food drive.
Summers said one-fourth of those donations will go to Project Downtown and the Can-Paign. The group plans on partnering with on-campus dorm halls and Greek life throughout the month to raise donations.
The goal, Summers said, is that the Can-Paign will spread across the entire campus as well as the USF community.
The collections will be distributed at the “Day of Dignity Tampa” event the group will be hosting in downtown Tampa on Dec. 15.
Hajjah Kamara, a senior majoring in international studies and the president of Project Downtown, said the purpose of “Day of Dignity Tampa” will be to break down the stigma associated with homelessness.
“If you ask people, especially students, what they think of homeless people, they usually have all these negative stereotypes,” Kamara said. “But we are attempting to eliminate that stigma and get students to realize that homeless people are just like us.”
At “Day of Dignity Tampa,” Project Downtown will be partnering with organizations and individuals in the community to offer hiking bags, medical checkups and grocery kits, using the supplies acquired through the Can-Paign.
“We really want to bring all of the services the homeless need to them, all on this one day,” Kamara said.
Members of Project Downtown hope the partnerships they set up around Tampa will allow them to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in order to move their efforts beyond the USF campus.