No benches means fewer homeless at Lykes Gaslight Square, whatever the goal might have been

The city of Tampa says the homeless weren't its target, but it has no timetable for replacing the seats at the park near City Hall.
Published July 6
Updated July 6
TAMPA — City officials insisted that they removed the benches from Lykes Gaslight Square Park as a temporary measure to refurbish them and not to drive off the homeless people who rested there.
 
Whatever the intent, though, that’s been the effect, say homeless advocates and some of the neighboring business owners.

The number of people showing up for a free meal served twice a week at the park across from City Hall has dropped from as many as 60 to just 20 since the benches were removed in March, said Jen Derless, a volunteer with the Tampa chapter of Food not Bombs.

“As soon as we pack up everyone is gone,” Derless said. “They don’t feel safe unless we’re there.”

As for the refurbishing the benches, that idea has been scrapped in favor of replacing them with cafe-style seating — small tables and chairs, said city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman. There’s no timeline for the work, though, Bauman said.

The city is working on the project with the Downtown Tampa Partnership.

“We’re excited about the potential because it is a pretty great space,” said Kelsy Long, partnership spokeswoman.

Meantime, in the four months since the benches were removed, temperatures have risen with the arrival of summer.

“It’s a lot harder on us,” said Robert Lindhout, 61, who said he’s been living on the streets for around 20 years and used to enjoy reading a book on the benches. Now, he sits on a piece of cardboard on the ground.

Advocates see the move as just one way the city is working to push homeless people from the downtown area.

The trash cans and ping pong tables also are gone from Lykes Gaslight Square and the power is now shut off at city parks. People who used outlets there to charge a cell phone or wheel chair now have to turn elsewhere, Derless said.

The park is undergoing a facelift, Bauman said.

The ping pong tables have outlived their usefulness and the electrical outlets, installed to power public events, often were vandalized, she said.

The benches, Bauman said, are beyond repair.

“Every time they say something different,” Derless replied. “They go from three weeks to four months to beyond repair.”

The city has been at odds with advocates before over homeless people downtown.

In 2017, seven people were arrested for feeding people in the park in violation of an ordinance requiring a permit to do on city property.
Homeless advocate James Worley questioned whether former Mayor Bob Buckhorn had “a heart for the homeless,” and said he hopes for more sympathy from new Mayor Jane Castor because she is the city’s former chief of police.

Derless is not so hopeful, saying city officials are just “posturing and puffing themselves up.”

Removing benches from Lykes Gaslight Square might actually have shifted homeless people toward businesses nearby, some owners say.
“It brings them more here,” said Claudia Charlery, an employee at Taco Bus. “Before, they had a spot to stay.”

At Szechuan House, manager Mia Liu said homeless people come into her store with someone else who buys them food. Half the time, they leave and return, Liu said, and half the time the homeless person returns seeking a cash refund for the food.

“It’s not good for my business,” she said, saying the order must be thrown out. “They waste my food.”

Now, with nowhere to sit, few people — homeless or otherwise — are enjoying a meal from a local restaurant in the shade at Lykes Gaslight Square. The park still hosts a monthly food truck rally, but questions remain about its future use.

“I don’t even know what to answer anymore,” Worley said. “I’m so burnt out.”

Contact Amanda Zhou at azhou@tampabay.com. Follow @amondozhou.
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