Imagine being 14 years old and your father says you aren’t welcome in his house. Going back to your mother isn’t an option because she is hooked on drugs.
What do you do?
Along with your 16-year-old sister, you wander the streets. Sometimes you can find someone who will take you in for a few days. Sometimes you’re sleeping in the park. And if that wasn’t crushing enough, a year later you are pregnant.
So yes, Katina Hickmon and her older sister, Albrina Hendry, know what it’s like to be poor, scared, alone and desperate.
“I remember sitting on a bench at Riverfront Park,” Hickmon said. “I felt so sad. I had no place to go. There were all these people in the world and I had no one to call. It was horrible.”
But a situation that seemed absent hope instead became the catalyst for the homeless outreach launched by the two women. They created a place for those who are often considered the least among us. They call it Hopeful and they do the work of angels.
Those who come through their doors are treated with respect and love by people who will never judge them.
On the third Saturday of every month at the Salvation Army facility on North Florida Avenue near downtown Tampa, they join other volunteers with a goal only to serve. Homeless and needy people receive meals, basics like socks, blankets and toiletries, medical services, counseling and just about anything else within reason.
They have some sponsors like Sonny’s BBQ and Mike’s Pies and they scavenge for other donations, but most of the cost comes out of their own pockets. That’s the deal. The Salvation Army lets volunteer groups use their kitchen and other rooms but provides no financial assistance.
So Hickmon makes a run to Sam’s Club and spends about $700 of her own on supplies. It’s a lot of money and she’s not rich, but this is a calling and she finds a way.
“She’s just remarkable,” said Ethan Morgan, who attends church with Hickmon. “Her heart goes out to those people. Her attitude is that she’s going to serve them, so just sit down and let us serve.
“I am overwhelmed with the heart she has. I have never seen anyone with the heart she has.”
This has not been an easy journey for Hickmon, even after leaving the streets. Over the years, she was arrested several times, including charges of aggravated assault, resisting arrest and disrupting a public school function. She doesn’t try to hide from that.
“That is definitely a part of my story,” she said. “It’s part of what makes me who I am. I had aggression issues and I have a big mouth. Sometimes I don’t know when to shut up. What I have learned through counseling is that no one is responsible for your life but you.”
The doors at the Salvation Army building were supposed to open at 2 p.m. Saturday, but a line started forming outside well before then. Once inside, the people were greeted with the Christmas classic “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.”
They sat at tables and were served hors d’oeuvres by volunteers, followed by dinner. They were given bags that included clean socks and bars of soap. For a few precious hours, they were among people who cared.
Where had the people come from?
The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative estimates nearly 2,000 men, women and children in the city and county are without a permanent residence. Nearly 40 percent of them are women. Almost half are in this situation for the first time, and 19 percent are under the age of 18.
Some are like Corretta Crompton, who repaid the assistance she and her children received from Hickmon by serving now as a Hopeful volunteer.
“People like the ones here mean a great deal to the community,” she said. “Without her, there are a lot of people who wouldn’t be eating.”
Hickmon came up with the idea for Hopeful after reflecting on her own experience growing up. She and her sister came up with the name while sitting at a Wendy’s restaurant.
She started by feeding people out of her home, but the crowds grew too large for that. They set up shop outside the Salvation Army with enough food for 70 people. Even that wasn’t enough. Now they feed about 300 people inside the building.
“You have to have a lot of love in your heart to do what they do because we don’t give them resources,” Salvation Army spokeswoman Wonetha Hall said. “The people who volunteer on the weekend really have the love, but these women really strike me as a group that’s especially dedicated.”
Hickmon is 42 now and employed by the University of South Florida. She earned her GED and now is 12 hours away from her bachelor’s degree. It’s a remarkable story of persistence.
“I stayed everywhere. Anywhere. I had a great-aunt in St. Petersburg who helped, but I didn’t have an address,” she said.
By the time Hickmon was 18, she had three children.
“I didn’t know how to take care of her,” Hendry said. “We were children living as adults.”
After four years of living as nomads, they were able to find some stability through public housing. Hickmon was able to get a job, which helped her and the kids leave public housing after just a year and half.
“I didn’t want them to grow up in the projects,” she said.
Experiences like that never leave you, though. That’s what drives them both to give back with an understanding, nonjudgmental heart.
“It’s horrible having to live like that,” Hickmon said. “People assume you’re hopeless because you’re homeless. But out of every 10 people we see here, eight of them want to get off the street.”
She welcomes everyone and tells them to call anytime they need help. They take her up on that. She got a call about 2:30 one morning from a man who needed a bus ticket to get to one of his children. He also wanted her special homemade fried chicken to eat on the way.
She said yes. She loves to say yes. She even made the chicken. That’s because she never forgets what it’s like when everyone around you says no.