Carlton: The homeless conundrum is way bigger than benches

Why Tampa removed park benches used by the homeless begs a bigger question: What are cities to do?
This planter in Lykes Gaslight Square Park is definitely not a bench.  [SUE CARLTON | Times]
This planter in Lykes Gaslight Square Park is definitely not a bench. [SUE CARLTON | Times]
Published April 19

A rectangular planter spilling over with leafy caladiums in a city park does not make a good bench. On this we can agree.

Though apparently not on much else in the latest dust-up between a city on the move and the homeless in its midst.

Tampa's Lykes Gaslight Square is a true old-school city park — no splash pads or sports fields, just a pleasant square-block respite of green, shade and paths at the heart of tall downtown buildings. It tucks up against the police station near city hall and is regularly filled with the tantalizing smells of a nearby barbecue joint. And its oak-shaded benches were often occupied by people who live on the street.

Not any more. Some homeless advocates suspect the benches there were removed and replaced by those aforementioned planters to discourage the homeless. They note it happened as Tampa was about to host the NCAA Women's Final Four, when perhaps weathered folk with backpacks in a park was not the national screenshot the city had in mind.

Not so, Tampa officials say. Those used-hard benches were badly in need of cleaning and will be back.

But isn't the question for cities across Tampa Bay — across America — bigger than benches? Isn't it about how you balance empathy with what a city wants to be?

How do you square a well-intentioned charity that feeds the hungry with a nearby neighborhood that deals with trash, public peeing and worse? Will we ever be willing to spend enough on mental health, substance abuse and other services to make real change? Are benches with an iron armrest up the middle so no one can lie down to sleep on them any kind of answer?

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, soon to term-limit out, has been a successful cheerleader for his city and its possibilities. He also has been perceived as not particularly welcoming to the homeless who flock here where it is warm and walkable. And while he's taken hits for this, it should be said for the record that plenty of citizens would agree with him.

Buckhorn says those benches were removed because they were "disgusting" and long overdue for refurbishing. I ask him a larger question about cities and the homeless.

He is a believer in the broken window theory, that if you let a problem fester, it gets bigger.

"Those parks and those public spaces belong to the people who live here and who use them as an open space," he says. "It's important you do not criminalize homelessness, but it's important you can't let the parks become the haven of the homeless. So it's been a very delicate balance."

Those who work with the homeless will tell you the real conundrum is the hardcore population they call "chronics" who do not want to come in, who will panhandle and do what they can to survive on the streets.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says this: "Look, I want us to be a compassionate city, to provide (for) them whether it's drug counseling or a roof. I want us to help." But like Buckhorn, he has less patience — or desire to be a welcoming city — to those who refuse help.

And who are as much a part of where we live as the sidewalks.

On an a recent, benchless morning, I did not see a single homeless person in the park, though I'm told one enterprising soul has been showing up with a lawn chair. I bet some of them will be back Monday afternoon when the Tampa Police Department at the edge of the park has regular hours to help them with problems on the street or getting hooked up to services like a dentist.

Is that balance? For the moment, maybe it's what we've got.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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