Tampa police and Downtown Partnership donate $3,000 to shelter homeless

Tampa police and a downtown group get the ball rolling to keep the homeless warm.
Published November 27 2013
Updated November 28 2013

TAMPA — Nearly five months after the Tampa City Council banned sleeping in public, two downtown entities have donated $3,000 to help shelter the city's homeless.

On Wednesday, the Tampa Police Department and Tampa Downtown Partnership announced the gift to the Salvation Army, which normally charges $10 a night after five free nights at its N Florida Avenue shelter.

The donation is meant to be "a challenge and an inspiration," Downtown Partnership president Christine Burdick said. The agencies hope businesses and individuals will add to the pot — especially those downtown business owners who have been vocal about the problems homeless people pose, Burdick said.

Tampa drew some negative reactions in July when it passed new restrictions on panhandling and sleeping in parks or on sidewalks. One of the ordinances prohibits people from storing their property in public, urinating in public, and sleeping or camping in parks, on sidewalks or in public rights of way. It passed 4-3, despite protests that it essentially criminalized homelessness.

Each person is given three warnings before being arrested. Since police started enforcing the ordinance in September, officers have arrested two people for sleeping in public and five people for urinating in public, police Chief Jane Castor said.

Tampa police's homeless liaison, Officer Dan McDonald, estimates there are between 200 and 500 chronically homeless in the downtown area. The Salvation Army has 220 beds and overflow options for cold nights.

On Wednesday, several police officers walked through downtown, telling the homeless about this new program, dubbed "Operation Gimme Shelter." The timing was good, Castor said, with temperatures expected to dip in the 30s and 40s overnight Wednesday.

The department's $2,000 donation comes from money it received as a thank-you from the organizers of the Sunset Festival after its May music festival at Raymond James Stadium.

Sitting in Lykes Gaslight Square Park, in front of police headquarters, 57-year-old Mitch Manseau said he will consider heading to the Salvation Army now that his stay is free. Before, he'd have to beg for the $10 to cover his stay.

"I used to hold a sign," he said, "but I'm not good at it."

Usually, he just sleeps by the Greyhound bus station.

Dean Sawyers said he will also consider heading to the Salvation Army. Normally, Sawyers, 47, prefers to stay elsewhere to avoid the crowds, but his blue jacket and blanket don't quite cut it on the coldest nights.

The officers continued letting people know on Wednesday and say many more will probably find out by word of mouth.

After that, Tampa officials hope to help these homeless people find more permanent housing solutions. Officer McDonald recently helped Manseau, a U.S. Army veteran, get a place to stay starting in December. He also helped Sawyers get a Social Security card and identification, which is often necessary to get a job, housing or benefits.

"Most people don't want to be out there on the streets," Castor said. "But they don't have the means or the documentation necessary to get themselves out."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.