While many college students take advantage of Friday nights for entertainment, members of USF’s student organization Project Downtown devote their Fridays to feeding the homeless.
Each week, the homeless advocacy group prepares sandwiches for 300 homeless people and visit four different downtown Tampa locations to deliver the meals. While the organization is run by students, some of the 40 to 90 volunteers that join Project Downtown each Friday are high school students or church members.
While feeding 300 people each year seems small in a city that boasts the nation’s highest rate of homelessness, Project Downtown president Hajjah Kamara believes there is much more to what the group does.
“The sandwich isn’t the purpose of what we do,” she said. “It’s kind of like a gateway. It starts off as building that personal connection, talking to people on the street, letting them know that we don’t all see you as nothing (and) that people do care.”
During the first three Fridays of the month, local restaurant Salem’s Gyros and Subs donates sandwiches and water for Project Downtown to distribute downtown. During the fourth week, the group purchases pizza from Gumby’s Pizza and when there is a fifth Friday, a group of volunteers meets at the Islamic Community of Tampa and makes tuna sandwiches.
One of these volunteers is Project Downtwon food coordinator, Phillip Vick, who has been volunteering with the organization for more than two years. For Vick, each Friday is a reminder to count his blessings.
“Every time I go downtown it’s just a good reminder that no matter what’s going in my life right now, these people have it way worse,” he said. “I could be stressed out about something silly, then I think about them and I realize I have it way better than them. Most of the people out there are really cheerful. They don’t ever complain.They never have anything to complain about even though they have no house.”
One of the most rewarding parts of the experience in Vick’s eyes is the appreciation that Tampa’s homeless population has for Project Downtown’s weekly visits.
“We actually get to know them,” he said. “We give them friendship, and that’s what they appreciate more than the food.”
Charles Bass, a Tampa native, has been homeless since 2007. He said he’s not afraid of going hungry, but has waited for Project Downtown each Friday for more than a year now.
“It’s gotten to be, for me, it’s gotten to be more than just coming out and getting a sandwich, you know,” he said. “As they tell the people who come here, you know, everybody has a story.”
His story involves spending more than ten years in prison on substance abuse charges, and said that as compared to jail, life on the streets is not bad.
Bass is just one of the hundreds of people the group’s volunteers have gotten to know over the years. Kamara said she has made many friends, including a former drug addict named Greg, who is now an active member in the community and has written a book that will soon be published.
“It’s an amazing thing,” she said. “You go out there and you get a chance to talk to people that you wouldn’t normally get a chance to talk to. They’re just like us.”
Vick said it is his duty to help those in need and does what he can to motivate the people he encounters to search for jobs and pick themselves up off the streets.
“It’s not like we take each homeless person we feed and put them in a house,” Vick said. “But we do make a difference. We do give them motivation. There are certain people I talk to each Friday, and each Friday when I go down there they’re like, ‘Man, I’ve been waiting to see you all week. I’ve been waiting to talk to you all week.’”
Kamara, a college senior who has been volunteering with Project Downtown since her junior year in high school, finds that the organization has helped raise awareness about homelessness, and hopes that as students, they will some day be able to affect change.
“If (students) can put a personal face to homelessness, that makes it easier for (them) to go out there and want to do something to stop homelessness,” she said.
The project was initiated by Muslim youth in Miami eight years ago. The USF chapter of the national organization has been active for seven years, and Kamara believes the fact that it is a Muslim organization is a key part of the efforts. Through the group’s community service, it is able to exemplify what it means to be a Muslim.
“One of our famous mottos is a saying of the Prophet (Mohammad), Peace Be Upon Him: ‘He who goes to bed full while his neighbor is hungry is not from amongst us,’” Kamara said. “Your neighbor isn’t just the person that lives across the street. Your neighbor is the people in your community. As Muslims that live in this Tampa community, it is our responsibility to look out for our neighbors.”
The volunteers meet at 1609 N. Franklin Ave. in Tampa at 6 p.m. each Friday. After the executive board meets, they hold a group huddle explaining to newcomers what the organization is about, and they break into four groups. The volunteers deliver meals to the Salvation Army, the Salvation Army Women’s and Children’s Shelter, Good Samaritan and a nearby alleyway.
While the number of volunteers dwindles during holidays and vacations, Project Downtown has a presence downtown each Friday of the year.
“No exceptions,” Kamara said.