Eric Ward: Tampa Police help the homeless

Published Jan. 13, 2017

Tampa and its Police Department have a long history of supporting the homeless with long-term, collaborative efforts that have a real impact. We work closely with charitable organizations, agencies, church groups and individuals, and we share their belief that we have a moral obligation to help those who are less fortunate.

Unfortunately, there is an organization that we have not been able to work with — a group called Food Not Bombs, which has generated a great deal of media coverage lately. Though some in the group appear to have a genuine interest in feeding the homeless, others appear to be more interested in name-calling and stirring up anger on social media. They have refused to work with the city. They insist they don't have to follow the same rules as everyone else. They have ignored sensible suggestions of appropriate options for feeding the homeless.

Though this controversy seems to resist an easy solution, there are workable alternatives that would be more effective and less disruptive than what Food Not Bombs is doing, which is essentially setting up an impromptu soup kitchen in Lykes Gaslight Park.

Tampa has an ordinance that requires prior written approval for groups planning to give out food or materials in a city park. Food Not Bombs has refused to comply. There are other sensible alternatives, and we have suggested them.

Just one example: The nearby Salvation Army would allow them to use their facilities to serve the homeless. The Salvation Army welcomes partners to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. They have 110 beds available for shelter. We have also suggested that Food Not Bombs could provide box lunches from a car or van parked on the perimeter of a park. They have rejected all offers to help them achieve their goals.

We at the Tampa Police Department are proud of our efforts to support the city's homeless population. Our two homeless liaisons go above and beyond, and their efforts change lives for the better. Each Monday, they meet individually with homeless people here in our headquarters to see how we can help. They have arranged for free dental care when it was desperately needed. They frequently arrange for shelter or jobs. They have searched for family members who have lost touch with loved ones and arranged reunions. They found donors who helped pay for and arrange a beautiful wedding ceremony for a homeless couple who wanted a proper ceremony. Most importantly, they work with area agencies that provide food and resources to the homeless every single day.

Instead of working with our homeless liaisons and with the city, the group Food Not Bombs has chosen to resort to confrontational tactics. When a Tampa police lieutenant attempted to reason with them, they shouted slogans to drown her out. A lieutenant's offer of a friendly handshake was rejected. They recently left the park and set up their tables blocking a city sidewalk in front of nearby restaurants — until the restaurant owners asked Tampa police to have them leave.

This confrontational approach is not helping to achieve the goal of feeding the homeless. The failure to find a solution is unfair to the homeless and everyone else who enjoys spending time in the park. We owe it to them to find a solution, and that has to start with mutual respect and open dialogue.

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The Tampa Policy Department will continue to do its part to support the homeless. We welcome partners who are willing to play by the rules and ready to craft sensible solutions. There's a lot of work to be done and no time for finger-pointing, confrontation and grandstanding.

Eric Ward is the chief of the Tampa Police Department.