TAMPA — At first, Gerald Williams couldn’t help but flinch when he felt the unfamiliar buzz of an electric hair clipper tickle the back of his neck just behind his ears.
It had been at least three years since Williams, 48, cut his hair, he said. For years he had done it himself, dragging a stick razor across his scalp to give himself a skin head that was low-maintenance enough for living on the street. But his hair had grown back wild and coarse.
The cure came Tuesday at an event for homeless people at the ACTS Firemen’s Hall Community Center in Tampa. In one place and all at the same time, people could get hair cuts, flu shots and other necessities at no cost.
For Williams, as the hair fell, so did the memories. He recognized swarms of familiar faces wandering among tables offering free shoes, toys, clothing and toiletries at the organization’s Community Homeless Outreach Fair, and introduced them by name to 25-year-old barber Dontrey Screller, one of about a dozen volunteers from Sixth Element Barber Shop.
For the past year, Williams says he has attended drug recovery programs every Monday and Friday by the Agency for Community Treatment Services, Inc., or ACTS. He has held a job at a local thrift store for about two months, and he now has an apartment of his own.
"Some of these people I recognize from the streets, they’ve been coming here for years but nothing has changed," Williams said. "I know how that feels, to sit on the sidewalk and dream about what you could have been when there’s no possibility for that dream anymore. I still want possibilities, I still want to be something, but I had to find something new to look forward to."
Homeless liaisons with the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office organize events like Tuesday’s outreach about four times a year, bringing local businesses and social services under one roof for the area’s homeless.
Informational booths helped participants connect with housing services like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, get free health screenings and flu shots, learn about possible job opportunities, obtain identification cards, register to vote and even meet with volunteers from the Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office to get help dealing with outstanding arrest warrants or other legal matters.
A mobile shower station provided the men and women a respite from the heat, and local law enforcement officers raffled off bicycles and bus passes to those willing to share their real names.
But still, many homeless remain skeptical of anyone offering to help in exchange for their name or personal information, said Vivian Hall, 43. She and her boyfriend became homeless after Hurricane Irma last year, when the house they were renting was condemned by the county.
Now, the mother of three sleeps outside of a Mobil gas station with her boyfriend, and her children live with a friend she met at church.
After Tuesday’s event, the two returned to the gas station loaded with shopping bags and laundry baskets full of free food, clothes and toiletries. Only a few of the new items were for Hall — scented body wash, a black sequined dress and a T-shirt covered in tropical flowers. The rest were laid out on the gas station corner to sell to the other homeless living in the tribe that’s become Hall’s family.
"I don’t have to be on the street," she said. "I’ve got a bedroom of my own at my mother’s house just a few blocks from where we stay, but I don’t want to live there without my boyfriend. We’ll make plenty of money selling this stuff. We’re doing okay."
For Williams, doing okay was never the motivation he needed, he said. His goal in life has become reuniting with his brother in Hawaii and his sister in Tennessee. He wants his nieces and nephews to be proud of him, he says, and he wants to be proud of himself.
Ever since he joined the drug treatment program at ACTS, he’s gotten better at remembering what that feels like. He felt it the day he was named vice president of the Hillsborough High School drama club, he said, and he felt it after taking a bow at the end of his school productions of A Raisin in the Sun, Li’l Abner and The Wiz, in which he scored a lead role as the scarecrow. He felt it just a few years ago, when he landed a role in a small production of Long Shadow of the Leaning Poll at the Straz Center in downtown Tampa.
"I got a radio alarm clock at one of these events a while back that has three alarms on it: cathedral, mechanical and nature sounds," Williams said. "Now, whenever I need a boost, I’ll lay on my bed and listen to ‘nature sounds,’ like the sound of the ocean."
It’s been 10 years since Williams has seen the ocean, but his brother in Hawaii lives on the beach, he said.
"If I keep myself straight, maybe I’ll go visit him and we can make music together like we used to," he said. "I used to be good at music."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.