TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Kenneth Cook rose through the ranks in the Army and became
accustomed to giving orders in war-torn environments like Afghanistan.
The Special Forces veteran now takes orders while cooking and serving more than 100 meals to the homeless during a day’s work with his donation and volunteer powered Stone Soup Group.
“How they treating you around here? Okay?” he asked one group in Tampa. “They bounced you from over there to over here?” Veterans were his initial target but he discovered the problem was bigger than he expected.
“Breaks my heart,” Cook said. “There are veterans out here but there are many others, too. I still had all the food. Homeless people are homeless people. We started serving everyone who was hungry.”
Cook has now served close to 5,000 hot meals from his vehicle in about two years.
“It’s Uber Eats for the homeless,” Cook said. “We bring the meals to them. We’re trying to get as much nutrition out of every container as we can.”
A homeless man named Alex has lived at the end of a trail in the Lutz area for about six months.
“I had legal problems,” he explained. “And ended up on the streets.”
His roof is a tent, an old car battery charges his phone and an empty detergent container on a tree is his shower.
“Load it up,” Alex said. “And you got 5 minutes of the hot water.”
After he got help from Cook, Alex returned the favor.
“And we kind of become friends and then I started working for him,” Alex said.
Alex, who hopes to save enough during the next few months to move into an apartment, said helping makes him “feel good.”
“Alright Bro,” he told one man. “Enjoy. Have a nice day.”
The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) indicated just under 2,500 Florida veterans were homeless as of 2019.
The homeless population was just over 28,000 in Florida, according to those HUD statistics. Florida’s total is the third highest state homeless population in the U.S.
One of the faces Cook usually sees during his runs is a veteran’s daughter named Sage.
“You know her?” Cook told one group. “She’s in a wheelchair.”
He has not seen her for weeks.
“She disappeared on me,” Cook told the group. “She was very clear about her father serving [in the military] and committing suicide. She told me the whole story.”
A man in Seminole Heights told Cook he had seen Sage.
“Thanks for letting me know,” Cook said
Several day later, Cook found her.
“You know how long I’ve been looking for you?” Cook said before giving her a hug.
“For a little while?” Sage answered, smiling.
Rep. Gus Bilarakis pointed out data indicates there has been a sharp decline in homeless veterans in Tampa Bay, but the Republican said more work needs to be done.
“We should not have any homeless folks out there. Particularly, we should not have one veteran homeless,” Bilirakis said. “We’re aware of the situation and we’re going to do everything we can to fix it.”
Cook said the crowds who need help from him are a reminder of third world countries where he served.
“Reminds me of Afghanistan. I’m disgusted,” Cook said. “These are our people man. They are our people.”
Bilirakis said he is working with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to increase federal assistance for housing to keep up with the rising cost of living in the Tampa area and other parts of the country.
“We have to catch up,” Bilirakis said. “It’s not enough.”