Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Politics

RNC protesters have to sleep sometime, but where?

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TAMPA — They've painted their posters and planned their marches.

Now the question is, where are the 15,000 protesters expected to come and shake their fists at the Republican National Convention next week going to stay?

Many are still trying to figure that out.

Or not.

"It's about the protest," said Corey Uhl, a Tampa protester who is helping to organize the massive March on the RNC set for Aug. 27. "It's not about the accommodations."

But even the most hard-core protesters have to sleep sometime. City rules prohibit just crashing on the sidewalk, and Hillsborough sheriff's deputies have asked local residents and sanitation workers to look out for signs that protesters are illegally squatting in vacant homes.

Plus, let's face it, August in Florida screams for a daily shower.

There are a few options:

• Share a cause, share a couch: Uhl and other local protesters have their own apartments. If there's floor space, they may welcome out-of-towners to crash.

"I have two that I know of right now," said Alton Douglass, with Occupy Tampa.

"I know some people coming in the week before," said Elizabeth Toms, another Occupy protester. "I'll let them stay over."

Uhl has gone that route several times when in other cities protesting. "Usually on floors," he said. It's not the most comfortable situation, but it beats the alternative.

Once, on a visit to Texas, Uhl and a few friends couldn't find a place to stay. "I found a park bench," he said.

Ouch.

• Get a room: Though it's probably a little late to secure a room by this point, many protesters have been directed to local inexpensive hotels and motels on online message boards and protester sites. The Motel 6 near Busch Gardens, for instance, or another one out by the airport.

They've also been directed to Gram's Place Hostel on N Ola Avenue, which is great news for co-owner Bruce Holland.

Holland said he's booked solid for the week. He doesn't know how many of his occupants are planning to protest; it doesn't much matter to him.

"August is usually my slowest month," Holland said. "This is definitely a nice shot in the arm."

• Urban camping: Those unafraid to brave the elements might try to find a spot in the couple of makeshift tent cities near downtown Tampa.

Closest to the action is Romneyville, a hive of mostly pink tents set up behind the Army Navy Surplus Market on N Tampa Street. Bruce Wright, who runs the site under the flag of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, said he expects the 30-person camp to grow to up to 300 people when the convention arrives.

It'll be a convenient place to get to, but there's a trade-off.

Right now there's just one place to shower, behind a blue plastic tarp against the wall of the store. There's a makeshift kitchen against a fence, with a coffeemaker plugged into a long extension cord. The Romneyville tenants gather around it for meetings, sitting in plastic chairs wedged in the dirt and mulch.

When it rains, it floods. And then the mosquitoes come. And then, the heat.

"It's pretty comfortable other than that," said 18-year-old Anthony Torres, whose tent fell apart during an overnight thunderstorm the other night.

There's one portable toilet, though Wright plans to have more brought in for the convention.

A few miles away is the Occupy Tampa site, at the Voice of Freedom Park in West Tampa, owned by strip club proprietor Joe Redner.

Toms, from Occupy, has been encouraging people to plan to stay there. It's easier than having to find indoor space for everybody.

"People keep asking me, do you know how many are coming?" Toms said. "It's hard to tell."

But, she said, "If our park is full, there's always Romneyville."

Squeeze in.

• Taking sanctuary: One fallback that nearly every protester mentions is churches.

They talk about traveling to activist events in other cities, and how congregations often open their doors and provide shelter. Sure, they sometimes have to sleep on the hard, cold floor, but it's something.

Not here.

While some protesters say they're still negotiating with local churches about sleeping arrangements, none of the churches in or around downtown Tampa that were contacted by the Tampa Bay Times said they planned to host protesters.

Those include Hyde Park United Methodist, the First Baptist Church of Tampa, Hyde Park Presbyterian Church, Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church and the Seminole Heights Baptist Church. There's no room, several church representatives said.

Some aren't closing their doors to everyone, though. Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church, both right downtown, said they'll be open for police use during the RNC.

"They'll be using our parish hall as a staging area, a place to get out of the heat and get some cold water," said St. Andrew's pastor John Reese. "I think the protesters are supposed to be across the street."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.

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