By ELISABETH DYER, Times Staff Writer
Tracey Crocker was homeless herself. Now she gives back to those who have nowhere to go.
Anyone who saw the two blond girls playing at Al Lopez Park that summer wouldn't have guessed it.
Their mother, Tracey Crocker, had escaped an abusive marriage in Alabama for a new life in Tampa in July 2003. She found herself homeless and alone.
"We went to the park because I didn't know where else to go," said Crocker, who hid her fears and the reality from her daughters. "We didn't have anywhere to go."
Most nights they found lodging, with help from friends who sent money. But some nights they slept in the car.
They arrived with $200 and everything they could squeeze into their Buick, compliments of Alabama's Project SAIL. The program works to keep victims safe from their abuser and helps them relocate.
Crocker and her girls left behind a Sheltie dog named Kiko, a Maine Coon cat named Baby Kitty and most of their belongings. But they also left behind sleepless nights and Crocker's mentally ill husband, who, she said, tried to kill her three times.
In Tampa, Crocker found her life mission.
"I made a promise then, that when I got on my feet, I would give back," she said.
Three years later, she's doing just that.
On Monday, the Florida Coalition for the Homeless, during a statewide annual conference in Tampa, honored Crocker for her service to homeless people.
"She's definitely driven to make a difference in the community with homeless people," said Rayme Nuckles, incoming president for the coalition.
Crocker, along with her new husband, Cory Crocker, work on long-term solutions to homelessness through their church, Covenant Chapel Ministries, on Fairbanks Avenue in Sulphur Springs. Crocker, who worked as a pastor in Alabama, became a full-time pastor at Covenant in May 2005.
In the past few months, the Crockers opened two leased homes near the church: Covenant House for homeless men and Bella House for homeless women. The couple serve up food, counseling and empowerment. Those who receive help are asked to give back. The Crockers call it a hand up, not a hand out.
At a Sunday church service, Crocker flits from one person to another like a hummingbird, drawing out loving smiles. Many of the parishioners are homeless or formerly homeless. She slides an arm around a man in the front row. She scoops up a little girl in a red flowered dress and dances to the music in an aisle. She wraps her arms around a latecomer.
"Most people are looking for this," she said. "A gentle touch."
Crocker's touch comes from someone who knows.
"If you can honestly tell somebody, 'I know how you feel,' it makes a big difference," she said. She remembers all too well how it feels to want for a warm shower and a glass of tea after a long day. To not dread the tune of the ice cream truck, which she couldn't afford for her girls.
Homelessness can happen to anybody. An eviction on your credit report or a criminal record can spin into a vicious circle. It's hard to get a job with no address and hard to get an address with no job.
For Melvin Smith, who lives at the Covenant House, it was a crack addiction. He works construction on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway but a few weeks ago slipped back into drugs. When he returned to the Covenant House, Crocker railed him for an hour. They had worried, she said.
In the end, she embraced him.
"She is very forgiving," Smith said.
Crocker's path hasn't been easy. She struggled to find a job, and when she did, had a hard time supporting her children on the $8 hourly wage.
But she wouldn't change any of it. To tamper with the past would change the present. The experiences have shaped her daughters, ages 9 and 14, making them generous and wise. As for her, "I'm exactly where I want to be. Giving back."
Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3321.
FAMILY: Husband, Cory; son Timmothy, daughters Heather and Lacey and stepdaughter Dallas
HOME: Sulphur Springs
SOLACE: "I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress." - Psalms 91, verse 2
WORSHIPS: At Covenant Chapel, 912 E Fairbanks Ave., where she is one of three pastors.
TO HELP: She needs bus passes, hygiene supplies, sheets, blankets, sleeping bags and warm clothes for the homeless. To donate, visit covenantchapelministries.org or call 610-2812.