Activists ask Tampa City Council to change rules that hinder feeding the homeless

Food Not Bombs activists serves food to the needy despite the threat of arrest. - Anthony Martino
Anthony Martino
Food Not Bombs activists serves food to the needy despite the threat of arrest.

Five days after seven Food Not Bombs activists were arrested for sharing food with the homeless in downtown Tampa's Lykes Gaslight Park, members of the group as well as supporters of their cause lined up in Tampa City Council chambers. Their purpose was to appeal directly to council members that rules governing who can feed the homeless and when be changed.

“The idea that city government has the authority to prevent us from caring for each other is absurd. We are using our knowledge, skills, connections, experience and material resources to people's survival and wellbeing," said Jimmy Dunson, one of the volunteers who was arrested Saturday. "We do not need the city government's permission to bring about a better world. We are going to bring about a better world. We are going to make this city bold."

Activists said that the group has hosted more than 100 public food sharing events in the park, but the city seemed only to enforce the ordinance supposedly barring the practice without a permit on that particular day because the National College Football Championship game was in town, and fans were traversing downtown to get to related events. Removing Food Not Bombs would help disperse undesirables on a weekend during which the city was getting national exposure.

Ashley Bauman, a spokesperson for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, said that was not the city's motive, adding that the impetus to stop the park feeding came from how large such events were growing, having gone from handing out small amounts of food to offering a large spread.

But the arrests did the city no favors; by Sunday, news of the arrests had gone viral, and the city got national exposure — but not of the good kind.

And while authorities cited a law on the city's books banning such events from city property without proper permitting, critics said the wording doesn't make it apply to groups like Food Not Bombs.

“I actually work with this direct code, and I was rather shocked to see — and the code itself, section 1643, clause C , which is the code that was cited prior to the arrests of the Food Not Bombs activists," said Aaron Walker, a professor at the University of Tampa. "The code says no person shall conduct any activity or utilize any department-managed land in a manner which might result in commercial activity, which Food Not Bombs is not, as defined in this chapter, or provide the distribution or sampling of any materials — merchandise, food or beverages — to the general public, which they do, without prior written approval from the department. That's all the code says.”

And even if it did, advocates said, barring food-sharing without proper permitting is wrong.

“This was an opportunity where the city could've come together to really spotlight everyday heroes like Dezeray and Jimmy,” said Seminole Heights resident Liz Brown. “We could have shown unity in our city by demonstrating that we are a loving, caring community instead of having a very ostentatious display of wealth, which was wonderful. It brought a lot of people to our community, but at the same time [the arrests] went viral.”

Public comment went on for nearly 40 minutes, after which Councilman Guido Maniscalco assured the activists and their supporters that he has asked city officials to look into steps that the city could take to change the law.

“I've met with the legal department, and at the end of this meeting, during new business I'll be bringing up some stuff regarding possibly modifying or amending the code.”

Food Not Bombs has offered free food to homeless people in Lykes Gaslight Park on Tuesdays and Saturdays for over a year, and has said it has no plans to stop the practice despite the threat of arrest.

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