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Helping the homeless isn't helping downtown Tampa businesses on Franklin Street

Joshua Garman, co-owner of Franklin Street’s Hidden Springs Brewery, left, and Carl Johnson, co-owner of Franklin Street Fine Woodwork, right, rinse their tools after picking up litter and human waste from the street and sidewalks by their businesses.
Joshua Garman, co-owner of Franklin Street’s Hidden Springs Brewery, left, and Carl Johnson, co-owner of Franklin Street Fine Woodwork, right, rinse their tools after picking up litter and human waste from the street and sidewalks by their businesses.
Published Dec. 13, 2015

TAMPA — Walk down N Franklin Street most mornings and there they are: three or four figures stooped over brooms and bags of trash. They pick toothbrushes, milk cartons and the occasional syringe out of the gutters. They hose urine off brick walls.

For business owners along this growing downtown strip, their morning ritual is about more than rehabilitating this end of Tampa Heights.

It's also about cleaning up after good Samaritans who they say are helping at the expense of the neighborhood.

On any given day, three or four vans roll in to drop off food, clothes and toiletries for the local homeless population. Unfortunately, local businesses say there's nowhere to dispose of the waste that results — including human waste.

Those groups may be trying to help the area's homeless population, but Franklin Street tenants say they're also making the strip a magnet for loiterers and trash.

"These people come here and they think they're doing good," said Joshua Garman, co-owner of Hidden Springs Brewery at 1631 N Franklin St. "But the trash, it's so ungodly. Everyone who works on this block spends the first half hour of their day cleaning up after them."

On this particular morning he spent an extra 15 minutes scrubbing a foul-smelling stain near the tasting room's door.

Down the street at Cafe Hey, owner S. Cheong Choi said he often comes in to find piles of clothes outside his door at 1540 N Franklin St. Bags were dropped off the evening before, rifled through, and then left behind for his staff to clean up.

"I don't want to be called heartless, but it's a lot of work," Choi said. "It seems unfair that business owners have to bear the brunt of this problem."

Garman, Choi and others worry the trash and sleeping figures under the "for lease" signs of the empty storefronts will drive away investors and other businesses from the so-called "Yellow Brick Row," which is just two blocks east of the area's newest amenities: the popular restaurant Ulele, Water Works Park and an extension of Riverwalk.

Owners of yoga studios, restaurants and real estate firms eyeing the neighborhood regularly pop into the brewery, cafe and nearby shops to ask about the area. The locals say they reassure potential tenants that the homeless who gather on the sidewalks rarely cause any issues — but then they never hear from those business owners again.

"People look at it as a threat," said lawyer Michael Kass, who owns and leases several buildings in the neighborhood, "and it's the perception of a threat that counts."

Ask current business owners why they came to Franklin Street and many cite the same reasons: location, price and potential.

Carl Johnson, co-owner of Franklin Street Fine Woodwork, came here in 2008 and spent a quarter of a million dollars renovating what he called a "big dark cave" into his studio at 1609 N Franklin St. For as long as he can remember, people have parked across the street, headed into the neighborhood with Styrofoam containers of food, and then driven off.

Despite his frustration, he's never approached those handing out food.

"I don't feel that I am qualified to deal with these types of issues," he said as he plucked one of the plastic foam containers off the sidewalk outside his shop. "I'm not trained in social matters. I'm a woodworker."

Dan McDonald, homeless liaison officer for the Tampa Police Department, is a familiar figure on N Franklin Street. When he's not responding to complaints from business owners, he's referring those in need to agencies and service providers who can help them.

"We're trying to break the cycle and get these folks the help they need," McDonald said.

Most of the calls he receives in the Franklin Street district are for nonviolent "quality of life issues" like trespassing, sleeping outside and drinking alcohol or urinating in public, he said.

He's tried to talk to the groups that come to the area to hand out food, often within a few minutes of each other. Their work isn't illegal, he said, but could violate rules against cooking without a permit and blocking the sidewalk.

"Their intent is good," McDonald said, "but it's maybe too much of a good thing."

While the city of Tampa can't prevent anyone from handing out food and other necessities in public, said spokeswoman Ashley Bauman, the city is trying to help the cleanup effort.

"My understanding of the law is it's legal," she said. "But the city is sending people every Monday to clean up trash and debris."

The Tampa Bay Times was unable to reach the groups that bring food and clothes for the homeless. The nearby Salvation Army said they didn't know who specifically has been passing out food in the area.

When McDonald approaches those groups, some have told him they want to do things on their own terms. Others, however, have agreed to partner with organizations that serve meals in their own facilities, like the Salvation Army. Each night the organization provides shelter and a free meal to about 130 people at its facilities along N Florida Avenue.

Salvation Army spokeswoman Wonetha Hall said they try to partner with local businesses, organizations and religious groups to provide free meals at their facilities. It's safer to prepare and serve food from the Salvation Army's kitchen, and the trash ends up in garbage cans, not in the streets.

"We love that people are thinking about the homeless," Hall said. "But they're trying to do it all on their own."

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