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Need increases yet donations fall

Metropolitan Ministries says donors don't have as much to give this year while even more families need help.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 13, 2002


photo
[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
It took Barbara Torok and her children, Andrew, 14, and Amanda, 9, two months to get housing at Metropolitan Ministries' Family Care Center.
TAMPA HEIGHTS -- Barbara Torok isn't used to being homeless and unemployed.

In California, she lived in a three-bedroom house and worked as an inventory auditor for a company outside of Los Angeles, earning $11 an hour.

Then her mother died and her fiance went to prison for beating her up.

Suddenly, she had no reason to stay.

"I came out here looking for a new life," she said. "I had nothing left back there."

Five months later, Torok, 35, and her two children are living at Metropolitan Ministries' homeless shelter on N Florida Avenue. She had a job but was laid off. She doesn't have a car.

The family is among 39 staying at the agency's Family Care Center. It took Torok nearly two months to get a room, which has a bath, bunk beds and one window.

She's grateful for a place to call home.

A total of 30 families are waiting to get in, up slightly from last year, officials said. Many are victims of the weak economy and the nation's high unemployment rate, which hit 6 percent last week, the highest rate in eight years.

"What we're seeing are people who have never had to ask for help before," spokeswoman Lesa Weikel said. "A lot of families are falling into homelessness."

While waiting for their name to come up, most people stay with friends or relatives. The agency puts some up at the Downtown Motel a few blocks up the street. "It's not the Hilton but it's a roof over their heads," Weikel said.

As of last month, Metropolitan Ministries had a record 10 families staying at the $30-a-night hotel. Today it has one.

The need has put a strain on the charity's already tight finances, Weikel said. It budgeted for 24 hotel nights a month, but used 78 in November.

The result: less money for other services.

Torok and her children, Andrew, 14, and Amanda, 9, spent more than seven weeks at the hotel. The three shared a bed and walked to the shelter for meals.

Every morning, the family had to check out, haul their belongings in two shopping carts to the shelter and call around for housing.

It was embarrassing, she said, especially for her kids.

"They aren't used to it. They're like snobby, snobby," she said, pushing up her nose with her finger.

Torok's "lucky day" came when a space opened at the shelter, built in 1986. They get food, bus tickets, clothing and counseling. Amanda attends the on-site academy. Andrew goes to Hillsborough High School.

Families can live at the shelter for up 18 months, though the average length is 70 days.

Torok plans to stay for a while. In January, she starts nursing classes at nearby Brewster Technical Center and hopes someday to work at Tampa General Hospital.

More than anything, she wants to make $20 an hour. She's tired of living off low-paying jobs and regrets forgoing college after high school.

Without Metropolitan Ministries, Torok suspects she'd be on her own, possibly on a bus back to California. She credits the staff with giving her hope and encouragement and vows not to let them down.

Chamberlain High student Tiara Holloway, 18, sorts through childrens' toys at Metropolitan Ministries Holiday Tent on Tuesday. Holloway volunteers with Chamberlain's Success Female Mentors club.
"I know I'm going to stick it out because they've helped us out so much," she said.

Metropolitan Ministries was founded in 1972 by 13 downtown Tampa churches to serve homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless. About 8 percent of its funding comes from the government. The rest comes from community donations.

Weikel said the agency is just now feeling the full effect of 9/11. Even though 9/11-related charities drew the lion's share of donations last year, Metropolitan Ministries still benefitted from a heightened spirit of giving.

A year later, the charity struggles. Donors don't have as much to give and 1,000 more families need help. Layoffs and pay cuts continue to devour nest eggs, forcing many families to live paycheck to paycheck.

Donations to Metropolitan Ministries are down about 25 percent compared with last year, officials said. Last-minute giving met the Thanksgiving need, but the agency is short thousands of toys and turkeys for Christmas.

As of Tuesday, the charity had collected 2,615 of the 85,000 toys and gifts needed, and less than half of the 726,000 pounds of food.

For people like Torok, the gifts will be the only ones her children receive on Christmas Day. It's a reality that motivates her to finish school, get a job and move on with her life.

"Right now I've got hope," she says. "I'm doing it on my own and it feels good."

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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