By Paul Newberry
The Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. — They started lining up at the “Faith Cafe” before lunchtime — the unemployed and the homeless, the hungry and the hopeless.
They were just two miles from Raymond James Stadium, where workers were putting the finishing touches on the site of America’s biggest party, the Super Bowl.
It sure seemed a lot farther away to these folks, who waited outside a drab building where workers doled out sustenance to the desperate — a sandwich or two, some potatoes, maybe a doughnut. Come nightfall, they’ll spread out in search of a park bench or a patch of grass, some place to sleep away another lost day.
This week they’ve tried to make their voices heard in a city throwing a big party they’re not invited to, complete with stretch limousines, steak-and-lobster dinners, high-rise hotel suites and a $1,000-a ticket football game on Sunday.
“I just can’t get a job,” said Michael John Leinonen, pausing between each word.
The unemployed carpenter motions toward the building where he just got some food.
“I could build this thing,” Leinonen boasted. He spots a boarded-up window on an otherwise gleaming office building across the street and says he could fix it.
“The economy started going downhill and it just kept on going,” he said. “At least I can get some nutrition over here. I come when I can. I’m still looking for work.”
The dichotomy between the haves and have-nots is always striking in a Super Bowl city, extravagance often rubbing shoulders with despondence. But that divide is even more glaring at this year’s game, between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, because of the worst economic crisis since the Depression.
Corinne Gaertner has been on the front lines as one of the regular volunteers at the “Faith Cafe,” which opens for an hour a day, Monday through Saturday, to provide meals to needy. In the past six months, she’s seen the average number of recipients nearly double to upward of 200 people on a typical day.
Three days before the Super Bowl, there was a line of several dozen people waiting to get in when the doors opened at 11:30 a.m.
“It’s been a huge change,” said Gaertner, who serves as a once-a-week coordinator for the kitchen run by South Tampa Ecumenical Ministries. “It used to be they could come in, chill out, have a cup of coffee, get off the street for a whole hour and relax. Now, we’re having to ask them to move it along so we can feed everybody.”
While city officials always tout the economic benefits of having a Super Bowl, saying it pumps tens of millions of dollars into the local economy, those on the street reap little benefit.
“It only means they’re sending a bunch of people down here on vacation and giving tax breaks to come down here and do business,” said 53-year-old David Hall, who works in construction but has been out of a job since his car was impounded a couple of weeks ago.
Rayme Nuckles, who runs the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, said the Super Bowl has landed in the middle of a community with the highest number of homeless people in the state, more than 9,500 at last count. And he expects that number will be at least 25 percent higher when his organization conducts its every-other-year homeless survey next month.
In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, some homeless advocates accused Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio of ordering police to step up arrests of those living on the streets, allegedly to sweep them out of view until all the high rollers got in and out of town. Iorio denied the allegations, saying she would never condone such a plan.
“The city is what it is,” she told local reporters. “Sadly, it represents a failing of our society as a whole.”
The homeless were skeptical about the mayor’s empathy.
“They’re making things a lot tougher,” said Antonio Coleman, who’s been out of work for two years. “We’ve got to find a place to hide to get away from her.”
Like Hall, Coleman saw no improvement in his life during Super Bowl week.
“If you’ve seen one Super Bowl, you’ve seen them all,” he said. “For people like us, it ain’t going to help worth a darn. It’s just going to help the rich.”
Compounding the problem: the Tampa Bay area has one of the nation’s highest home foreclosure rates, ranking 14th among major metropolitan areas with more than 53,000 filings in 2008 — a staggering 122 percent increase over the previous year, according to RealtyTrac. Florida had the nation’s second-worst foreclosure rate last year, trailing only Nevada.
“It’s rough out there,” said Hall, who said he once owned a home but now lives in a pop-up camper. “I’ve never seen it this bad.”
The NFL does try to leave an imprint on the cities hosting its biggest game. In Tampa, the league donated $1 million for construction of a football field serving underprivileged youths, sponsored a charity bowling tournament and participated in a program that builds and repairs affordable housing. On the other hand, Nuckles said there’s no plans to set up a central area for the homeless to watch the title game, which was done at some previous Super Bowl cities.
Hall could care less about watching the game, though he might wander over to Raymond James Stadium afterward to earn a few bucks on a cleanup crew.
“But you’ve got everybody in the world down here looking for a job,” he said.