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Benches were removed from a downtown Tampa park. Is it to keep the homeless away?

Robert Allen Doyle,60, along with others who attend the twice weekly homeless feedings by Food Not Bombs are forced to sit on the ground after city workers removed all the park benches from Lykes Gaslight Square Park a month ago and replaced the benches with planters. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Apr. 15

TAMPA — No question Lykes Gaslight Square Park is a square-block oasis of green and shade in Tampa's downtown.

But can it still be called a park when there is nowhere to park your behind?

More than a month after city workers removed all of its benches for refurbishing, there is still no sign of them returning. And in their place, city workers recently placed larger fiberglass planters.

That has added more fuel to theories among homeless advocates that the benches are never coming back, a move they say is a deliberate attempt to drive the park's regular homeless population out of downtown Tampa.

Advocates say it is no coincidence that the benches were removed just before the city hosted the NCAA Women's Final Four tournament at Amalie Arena downtown. The seats were a regular resting place for homeless people and also where they sat to eat at twice-weekly free meal events at the park organized by Food Not Bombs.

Now people must sit on the ground or stand while they eat, said Jen Derless, a volunteer with the group.

"Their motivation would appear to be to clean up the homeless and those that use the park as something other than a thoroughfare," Derless said. "There are not just 'houseless' folks. There are also people who want to sit in that park."

City spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said the city still plans to return benches to the park and those outside City Hall that also were removed. In all, some 43 benches are being renovated, some for the first time in 30 years, she said.

"We live in a city with a lot of green space and a lot of parks, which all require maintenance so people can enjoy these amenities for years to come," she said.

She said the planters were installed as a temporary measure and that claims that the benches won't return are inaccurate although she could not provide an estimate of when the seats will be returned.

When asked why the city didn't stagger the work to leave some benches in place, Bauman said, "It's just how we operate; we are refurbishing all of them at the same time."

The controversy is the latest skirmish between homeless advocates and the city.

In January 2017, seven advocates — including members of Food Not Bombs — were arrested for feeding homeless and needy people in the park. Officials said they were violating an ordinance that requires a permit to hand out food on city property.

Tampa police launched a similar enforcement action against the same group 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.

Removing benches from one of the few shady spots in downtown is a step backward for a city that in recent years has prided itself on being more bike and pedestrian-friendly, said Rick Fernandez, who is vice chairman of a Metropolitan Planning Organization's citizens committee.

"It seems a pretty heartless thing to have done," he said. "A big part of walkability is having a place to rest your bones when you're tired."

The benches are also being missed by customers and workers at the adjacent Holy Hog BBQ restaurant, said manager Frank Warrington. The eatery has an outdoor dining area but the benches were also a popular spot, he said.

"It's a bummer," he said. "Our employers like to go out there to take a break. I have a feeling they're not going to bring them back."

About 20 homeless and needy people lined up at the park Saturday afternoon as members of Food not Bombs handed out bowls of collard and mustard greens, as well as pastries, bars of chocolate and sweet tea.

Robert Allen Doyle, a former licensed massage therapist, struggled to lower himself to the ground while holding his food. Homeless for three years, the 60-year-old sleeps in a sleeping bag he carries around in a suitcase,

"It's not comfortable on the ground," he said.

Christina Long, 48, ate her food standing until another homeless person offered her his folding chair.

She became homeless after her mother died and her father later remarried. She has a heart condition and joint pain that prevent her from working but does not qualify for disability. She is also on a waiting list for housing.

She mostly sleeps sitting up close to 24-hour businesses like Walmart so there is some light and nearby restrooms. She wants the benches returned.

"They've taken them away from the regular public, too," she said. "It's sad to not have anywhere to sit."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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