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Compassion quest: Police arrest seven for feeding homeless in Tampa park

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Did Tampa officials clamp down on people for giving food without a permit because there's a national college football game Monday?

Tampa police arrested seven people for distributing free food without a city permit in this screen grab taken from a bystander video, Saturday, Jan. 7.
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Seven people were arrested Saturday in Tampa, Fla., for distributing food to homeless people in a city park without a permit, reigniting public debate over both the rights of homeless Americans and the most effective way to be compassionate to those needing help. 

Despite being warned last week that they were violating city ordinance, members of "Tampa Food Not Bombs" defied local authorities by returning to Lykes Gaslight Square Park with tables and supplies to serve up a hot meal on a chilly day. Police made good on their threat to enforce the law and hauled violators to the station across the street, where they were issued citations and released, as The Tampa Bay Times reported.

"This is the first time, really, in a little while that we've heard about there being arrests once again, so we're pretty saddened by that," Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

The coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group, published a report in fall 2014 surveying ordinances in more than 30 cities across the United States – including 11 in Florida, more than any other state – that restrict public food-sharing in one form or another. The rules drew national press attention that November when Fort Lauderdale police arrested 90-year-old Arnold Abbott for feeding homeless people in a park, as he had done for more than two decades.

Ms. Hustings says the two years since have brought modest victories and relative quiet.

"We were hopeful that we’d made some progress, but I think there’s a large public event, a college football event, in Tampa tonight," Hustings adds. "We believe that that’s probably the reason there’s been a crackdown in public food-sharing."

Tampa would not be the first community to come under fire for cracking down on homeless communities ahead of sporting events. Last year, San Franciso drew ire for removing people from the streets ahead of the Super Bowl.

It is true that the national college football championship game is scheduled for Monday night in Tampa Bay, but the city refutes the suggestion that its ordinance enforcement was part of an effort to clear homeless people from the streets.

"This had nothing whatsoever to do with the game, we felt action had to be taken because of the overwhelming and growing crowd in the park," city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman tells the Monitor in a written statement.

But organizers told the Times that they have held public events twice-weekly for years, including more than 100 events last year alone, without any run-ins with police since 2004.

"The city has a lot of money hinging on the events this weekend," volunteer Jimmy Dunson, who was among those arrested Saturday, told the Times, "so we don't think it's a coincidence that now is the time they chose to crack down on our food sharings."

Mr. Dunson and his codefendants, though not booked into the county jail, will be required to show up for a court hearing. But their case represents a broader, more fundamental disagreement over the best practices in caring for homeless people.

"We think any type of restriction on sharing of food is really limiting our rights and especially infringing upon the rights of folks who are experiencing homelessness and might have difficulty accessing food and other resources on a daily basis," NCH's Hustings says. 

"We don’t see giving someone a sandwich as, as some people might say, enabling them to be homeless," she adds. "It’s really enabling them to survive another day."

But others contend that a more structured approach to compassion is the only effective way to go.

Ron Book, board of trustees chairman for the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, says he sees the volunteerism of groups like Tampa Food Not Bombs as inadequate and even, at times, counterproductive.

"When people are unwilling to channel the resources where it makes the most impact, yeah, it frustrates me to no end," Mr. Book tells the Monitor in a phone interview. 

Book, who has worked with the Homeless Trust organization for 23 years to take a structured approach to helping the needy, says the community has seen a dramatic reduction in homelessness because local leaders devoted resources to a solid plan.

"If what we’re committed to as a society is ending homelessness – whether that’s a short-term, a mid-term, or a long-term chronic homeless individual – the fact is, making it easier to sustain yourself on the street makes it harder for those that work to get people off the streets," Book says.

A video of Tampa police shutting down the event Saturday was broadcast on Facebook Live.

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