Trinity Cafe opens in V.M. Ybor despite neighborhood objections

04/30/13 Janelle Irwin
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Despite objections from some neighbors, a local charity will serve lunch to more than 200 of Tampa’s impoverished and homeless. Trinity Café opened its doors on Nebraska Avenue in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood Tuesday morning at 11:30. More than 100 people were already lined up waiting for a hot meal.

‘These folks are struggling, obviously. Some are homeless. Some are what we refer to as working poor. They’re making tough decisions deciding whether they’re going to eat dinner or pay a bill or maybe buy medication.”

That’s Trinity Café’s program director Cindy Davis. The V.M. Ybor neighborhood association has fought long and hard at Tampa City Council meetings to keep the charity from opening up shop. They worry Trinity is an invitation for crime and blight. But one Trinity guest, Joseph, said the café is a saving grace for people like him.

“It’s a blessing. People have no excuse … there’s always a place to eat free. So, sometimes you gotta hold your pride down a little bit just to make things happen and hopefully get a job and make things go a little further up.”

And Trinity Café’s program director, Davis, hopes the tension among people in the neighborhood is behind her now.

“We looked for a place that was zoned properly. We looked for a place that was in the general vicinity where most of our guests are. We also looked for a place on a bus line and we found this property. The gentleman that owned it was getting ready to retire so the timing was right and we purchased and then we started raising funds to build the building – or to renovate it.”

Trinity has served free lunches to anyone who needs one since 2001. They previously operated out of the Salvation Army shelter where they bartered meals for space. Davis said having their own building will allow the group to expand, and one day, serve meals on weekends too. She calls the people who eat there guests, because to her, that’s what they are.

“We do this like a restaurant. Our guests are greeted at the door. They’re directed to tables that are set and then we have volunteers who serve them and we serve in courses like a restaurant. So, they are our guests. They sit at the tables, they relax, it’s a break from the street.”

A pianist volunteered her time to play during lunch from an old piano in the corner of the sunlit yellow dining room. Smells from the sparkling new stainless steel kitchen wafted through the building.

“Today we have nice, fresh rolls. We have salad with homemade Thousand Island dressing. We have stuffed bell peppers with marinara sauce and three cheeses on top. We have Yukon Gold whipped potatoes. We have mixed vegetables with caramelized onions and collard greens. And then for dessert we have warm cookies and bananas.”

Trinity Chef Alfred Astl works part time whipping up quality meals for people who otherwise might be eating thrown out scraps from grocery store dumpsters. He used to be a high class chef working in the hotel industry. Astl said this isn’t much different; he just has a tighter budget to work with.

“I have food brokers over the years – I have good relations with food brokers. They go to the factories and they get, like, seconds – something’s not packaged right, they can’t sell it full price – chickens are not all the same size, the chicken breasts are not all the same size. They call me every other day and say we have this, we have that and I base my money on that. And what helps now is, I have a larger freezer so if someone calls me and says, ‘I have thirty cases of this or thirty cases of this’ I can buy it and store it until I use it.”

Even with his 12 years of experience cutting costs for Trinity, Astl still spends between 13 and 16,000 dollars a month on food. The money comes from community donors and grants. But Astl said it means a lot more to serve people who really need the food as opposed to those he served in hotels where he knew they could afford luxury meals everyday.

“The guests here, you don’t know when their last meal was, when their next meal is. So, I serve generous portions. But, on Monday I serve even larger portion for the simple reason, I don’t know the last time they ate. On Friday, super big, I don’t know the next time they’re going to get a meal.”

Joseph, the homeless man who asked that his last name not be used, said if it weren’t for places like Trinity Café serving meals, crime rates would sky rocket.

“Oh, I’d go out stealing. Oh yeah. I’m not going to starve. I’d go out stealing.”

Volunteers for Trinity Café have also put together a binder with information about other services in the area like shelters and job placement assistance. Each table in the dining room has a reserved seat for a table host who will help people locate the information if they want it.

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Congratulations!! I am so pleased that you will be able to continue this wonderful service and reach more people.

The building which they renovated had been dilapidated for many years and is nowgreatly improved. My hope is the surrounding neighborhood will come to view Trinity as a wonderful community asset, which it is. You would be hard pressed to find a more compassionate, better run charity. I applaud the efforts of this humble organization. They certainly are a good steward of the support they receive. What they are doing is truly beautiful.

What most people don't realize is that Trinity Cafe was able to relocate to their new location because they obtained their permits, etc., under the guise of being a restaurant. I understand that there is a need for the services they provide, but there are probably more appropriate places for this, not right next to a residential area. Locating this in someone else's neighborhood, without giving them an ounce of input, is just plain wrong. To date, NONE of the people supporting Trinity Cafe in their many comments online, have offered up their own neighborhoods for this service. Is V.M.Ybor the only neighborhood who has a Commerical General zoned area near a bus line? Why didn't they look near Bayshore Blvd. near downtown, where the need for this type of service was so much more evident, or closer to where they were located, where other services for homeless already exist? Trinity Cafe did not relocate to our neighborhood because they thought there was a need. They chose our neighborhood because they made a crass judgment, and thought we simply didn't care. We will see how good of neighbors they are. So far, they have not reached out once to do anything they claim they were going to do, including attending our general meetings, participating in our garbage clean ups, tending a plot at our community garden... Like I said, we will see how this goes...