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Carlton: Arrested for feeding homeless people? It's complicated

After Saturday’s arrests, Food Not Bombs members were back Tuesday serving the homeless at Lykes Gaslight Square Park.
Published Jan. 11, 2017

It is tempting to begin discussion of the recent dispute in a downtown Tampa park thusly:

Good news, everyone! Apparently serious crime is nonexistent and Tampa police have plenty of time to arrest good-hearted people who dare to serve food to the homeless. Particularly when there's a big college football game packing the town.

Except the truth — like the problem of homelessness at the root of all this — is more complex.

First, don't you suppose those officers involved in the highly videoed arrests of seven people Saturday from a group called Tampa Food Not Bombs would rather have been out fighting what most of us think of as, you know, actual crime?

The charge was trespass after warning because volunteers did not have the required city permit — which would make them subject to potential fees and the cost of insurance coverage — and did not shut down after police told them to.

Yes, rules are rules, and cops are there to enforce them. And yes, there are sound reasons to require city approval. Obviously, officials need to know what's going on in the parks, whether they need traffic control or police, if events conflict, that sort of thing.

But aren't parks for the people? And seriously, we're talking about volunteers setting up a couple of battered cafeteria tables and dishing out hot coffee and vegan and vegetarian chow to maybe two dozen people shivering in the cold.

So about that timing: Food Not Bombs volunteers got arrested for similarly nefarious crimes 12 years ago, but charges were dropped. They say they have been serving the homeless (or "sharing" with the "houseless") ever since — probably more than 100 times last year.

Hmm. Do you suppose Saturday's YouTubed dispute had something to do with all those Clemson and Alabama fans traipsing around the prettied-up downtown before Monday's national championship football game? With the homeless being an unsightly detail officials might not want trotted out for the party?

The city denies there's anything whatsoever to the timing.

Videos and news coverage of volunteers led off in handcuffs got lots of attention. And no question about it, Food Not Bombs threw down the gauntlet, saying they would be back Tuesday morning. And back they came with bread pudding, sweet potato pie and supporters carrying signs that said things like "Move On To Where?"

As people filled paper plates with steaming food, 10 or so police officers walked up. (Lykes Gaslight Square Park is conveniently located just outside the downtown police station, where homeless people often use the bathrooms.) "Don't worry, Usher went home!" someone called, referencing the hot weekend concert at a park nearby. And another: "I am one angry hobo!" It made for an interesting standoff.

A police lieutenant explained the rules and asked Food Not Bombs to take down the tables. Protesters linked arms, making clear this was not the plan. Homeless people tucked extra sandwiches and bananas into backpacks and wrapped on donated scarves.

As we all waited to see what would happen next, I listened in on a cop quietly chatting with a protester, urging him to talk to his elected City Council members to get the rules changed so this wouldn't happen. Sensible compromise in the midst of all this. What a thought.

In the end, the city opted in the name of optics and did not arrest anyone — or not exactly. Later, trespassing charges would be filed directly to the State Attorney's Office against some people who were serving food again — the city sticking to its guns while avoiding the potential for even worse video viewing.

Here is what I was left thinking: It is a sad fact that most interesting American cities also struggle with what to do about people on the streets. We are nothing new.

Tampa did look good for the big game. It would also be nice to be known for the kind of change — the kind of empathy — even the cop and the protester seemed to agree on.

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