Video: Tampa stories of local homeless in the time of COVID-19

Tampa native Bruce Johnson, a Florida State University graduate and local businessman, first got involved working with non-profits when he was a young man through mentoring a pair of brothers from an under-resourced community. The brothers were young and Johnson was there for them in critical times. 

Many years later, he is still connected with them and they check in with each other on their progress as they have grown to be adults with their own families.

But that’s just the kind of man Johnson is. He believes in building relationships, in both his personal and in his business life.

Johnson has accepted challenges since he was a young man and striking out on his own in business. It has paid off. He is now very successful in the local insurance world. He also believes in giving back and has supported many charities whenever he is asked. These are, for the most part, at arms-length through making generous financial donations.
 
But a bike ride through Downtown Tampa changed all that.

Johnson and his wife Beth were riding along enjoying the sights and sounds when they met Jack on The Tampa Riverwalk.

Jack appeared to be homeless. 

The Johnsons stopped to say hello, looked Jack in the eyes, and held a conversation about life and about living on the streets. That conversation has taken all of them on a journey none of them expected.

You see, Johnson is that rare individual who goes that extra mile -- and has a deep passion for people and helping those who need help. He and his wife volunteer at a soup kitchen in Ybor City once a week, make charitable contributions to many charitable causes, and recognize the needs in the community are great.

In many ways, you could say he is following the lead of Mother Teresa: "Numbers don’t matter. Help who you can, and always start with the one closest to you.”

So, Johnson stopped and spoke with Jack, eventually helping him out to find a place to stay for several nights. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Johnson reconnected with Jack the following week. And with a friend of Jack’s as well. 

What Johnson realizes is that these connections could inspire others. Looking someone in the eye. Having a conversation. Listening. And then sharing.

All of this has led Johnson to a new understanding and a new passion for the homeless. After Jack, there have been many more (Timothy, Minnie, John, Mark, Jamie, and so on) and each time, there is a connection with another individual. Another person who most of us would never recognize, never get to know. 

So, Johnson has decided to tell their stories through video and get the stories out to those who can help. Doing so helps educate, inspire, and often celebrate the triumphs of the human spirit that he gets to see in his interactions with those experiencing homelessness. 

In subsequent months, Johnson has made real connections and shared them across his social media platforms. The stories are incredible. The faces are our own. 

From getting a roof over someone’s head to paying off a car loan so a homeless young man could get back on his feet to finding a motorized trike for a previously homeless outlaw biker, Johnson has been helping one on one, one after another.

And, as importantly, he has been telling the stories. In the voices of the homeless. He started his own YouTube channel, GivingBackTV,  where he is posting videos.

Where does this lead?

Well, a network of caring people has emerged in the Tampa Bay Area. They are coming forth with ideas, clothing, equipment, even an RV!

This network is being inspired to look in the faces of the homeless in their own hometowns, their own street corners, their own sidewalks. 

And they too are asking the questions, “How are you? How can I help?'' Just like Bruce Johnson does.

Johnson isn't sure where this path winds up, but he knows that it is a journey of the heart worth taking.

Eileen Sweeney is Principle/Executive Producer of the Humankind Partnership, a content creation company, based in Tampa. Johnson is one of her clients. For more information, visit the GivingBackTV website.
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