BRANDON - It's hot now, but cold weather will return, and Vince Ferraro, president of the board of I Am HOPE Café, wants to be ready. He seeks volunteers to staff the cold-weather shelter in Brandon.
"Shelters open on nights when the wind-chill drops to 32 or below," said Ferraro.
National Weather Service forecasters alert county officials. They then contact Ferraro, who transports people to and from the Brandon shelter, and Eleanor Saunders of Bay Life Church, who organizes volunteers for round-the-clock shifts.
"From 6 to 10, you serve a hot meal, show a movie or play board games," she said. "You hear the stories of the homeless people who come in. From 10 to 1, some are awake, on the computers or talking. Others are asleep on the center's exercise mats - for once, they have a safe, warm, comfortable place to be, where they don't have to look constantly over their shoulders.
"The 1-to-4 shift is hardest to fill," she said, when everyone's asleep and there's not much interaction. "The 4-to-7 shift is nice. You get to know people over breakfast, and everyone helps clean up, fold blankets and put mats away."
The volunteer experience shows a "different side of Brandon," said Saunders.
"You see familiar faces from around town, maybe Linda, Charles and Floyd. Here you get to know them, learn why some choose to be chronically homeless, meet some who want to get off the streets."
Brandon Park Recreation Center, 510 E. Sadie St., accommodates about 65 men in one room and 12 women and children in another. Usually about 30 people who are homeless or have inadequate shelter come on frigid nights.
Doors open at 6 p.m. Guests cannot enter or leave after 8 p.m. and everyone must be out by 6:30 a.m.
"We check with Hillsborough County to make sure there are no outstanding warrants or arrests," said Ferraro. "Usually a sheriff's deputy parks his cruiser on the property for security."
Metropolitan Ministries provides dinner. Clothes, blankets and snacks are donated. One night, employees from The Cheesecake Factory dropped off five huge cheesecakes, said Ferraro.
The cold-weather shifts "gives us a chance to get one-on-one with [the homeless] for spiritual counseling - or sometimes they just want to talk," said Ferraro. "It's a very rewarding process. But we need more volunteers."
To help, contact Ferraro at (813) 690-7301 or Saunders at (813) 661-3696 or ESaunders@baylife.org.
Send stories of community interest to Barbara Routen at Neighbors@tampabay.rr.c.om.