TAMPA — The arrests of seven volunteers feeding people in a Tampa park last week is the latest flareup in a battle that has simmered for at least a dozen years.
Now the conflict appears to be coming to a head. On one side is Tampa Food Not Bombs, an activist group that sees defying local ordinances as a form of civil disobedience. On the other are city officials like Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who says the park is the wrong place to feed the needy.
Similar conflicts have cropped up in cities across the country as homeless advocates work to bring help directly to the poor and local governments aim to keep parks clear of what they see as — in Buckhorn's words — "an incompatible use."
Some cities, including St. Petersburg, allow small-scale food distribution without a permit. It's time to find a similar solution across the bay, said Michael Maddux, a local defense attorney representing Tampa Food Not Bombs.
"I think this time we need to solve the riddle," Maddux said. "There's got to be a balance."
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Restricting the use of public property and requiring people and groups to get a permit, often for a fee, is an increasingly common way for cities to restrict food sharing, according to a 2014 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless called "Share No More: The Criminalization of Efforts to Feed People in Need."
In 2013 and 2014, 21 cities successfully restricted the practice through legislative actions or community pressure to cease distributing food to those in need, the report found. At least 10 other cities were in the process of following suit.
A court in Texas has found that providing food can be a protected form of religious speech for groups whose mission involves helping the needy, said Eric Tars, senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. There could be a parallel defense for nonreligious groups like Food Not Bombs, Tars said.
"Sharing food could be an expression of protest," he said. "So far as I'm aware, that's been less litigated."
Enforcement efforts tend to ramp up ahead of big events that draw crowds downtown, like the College Football Playoff national championship game and related events that attracted thousands of people to downtown Tampa last weekend, said Megan Hustings, interim director for the homeless coalition.
"It's very common for the people who are homeless and the people helping them to be pushed out of downtown areas," Hustings said. "Usually, it starts about a week before the event."
The Tampa arrests Saturday at Lykes Gaslight Square Park, and additional charges expected from a feeding there Tuesday, arise from a city ordinance that requires a permit to hand out food on city property. Tampa police launched a similar enforcement action against Food Not Bombs at Herman Massey Park in 2004. And in August 2011, police cited the ordinance as they shut down church volunteers feeding the homeless in a city lot downtown near Interstate 275.
Volunteers at that time said they believed the crackdown was part of a cleanup effort ahead of the August 2012 Republican National Convention.
The Tampa ordinance forbids using any park land "for the distribution or sampling of any materials, merchandise, food, and/or beverages to the general public, without prior written approval from the department."
There is no application fee, but there would be a green space fee of $25 applied each time a group uses the park, said Tony Mulkey, the city's special events superintendent. The city also requires general liability insurance coverage of at least $1 million — an onerous demand, Food Not Bombs says. Some organizations use existing insurance, others pay a vendor about $50 for coverage of five days or less or $368 for a full year.
Distributing free food, Mulkey said, "falls outside of what we usually permit, but we'd look at every application on face value."
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Tampa's policy stands in contrast to St. Petersburg, where city officials allow groups to do small-scale feedings — with tables — in parks without a permit. St. Pete Food Not Bombs distributes food at Williams Park, in the downtown core, every Monday, said Cliff Smith, the city's manager of veterans, social and homeless services.
"They're very good and we have no issues with them," Smith said. "Our police do watch to make sure they're okay, but as long as they're good neighbors, that's what we're concerned about."
Tampa should give its local chapter the same consideration, Maddux said.
"Hopefully, we can come up with a better permitting process that gives them the fair opportunity to either become permitted or receive a waiver," he said.
Started in 1980 in Cambridge, Mass., Food Not Bombs describes itself as an international revolutionary movement dedicated to the principles of nonviolence, consensus and the idea that food is a right, not a privilege.
The Tampa chapter has been sharing food in city parks for at least a dozen years and started the Gaslight Square effort a few years ago. While other advocacy groups forge ties with partners with brick-and-mortar locations to serve the needy, Food Not Bombs sees its effort as a boots-on-the-ground approach to bring food and fellowship to the needy, said local organizer Jimmy Dunson. Members believe they shouldn't have to pay a fee or register with the government to use public space.
"All of us pay taxes and that is supposed to provide for the use of the public parks," Dunson said. "We feel like this is not something the police should be policing and the government should be governing."
Buckhorn disagrees and insisted Wednesday that the enforcement effort had nothing to do with the football game. He said the food-sharing events have become "increasingly larger and more intrusive" as the group added tables and attracted as many as "60, 70, 80 people."
"There are places that are appropriate for those types of feedings and there are places that are not, and that is not one of them," Buckhorn said, noting that downtown has become more of a residential neighborhood. "So you have two incompatible uses. We're not trying to be heartless. We're just trying to manage living in an urban environment."
Buckhorn said he is open to the possibility of a compromise with Food Not Bombs, but it won't be at Gaslight park.
"I'm always looking for common ground, but I also recognize there are some groups that don't care what the rules are, and that seems to be the model for this particular group," he said. "You can't destroy a neighborhood in order to make your conscience feel better, and that's exactly what's happening."
Dunson disputed his group has ever attracted 60 or more people or used more than two folding tables. And he indicated the group also plans to take a constructive approach: Members plan to show up to the City Council today with a request.
"We're going ask that they change or amend the ordinance that police are using to criminalize us," he said.
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.