The afternoon of January 7, a familiar scene unfolded at Lykes Gaslight Park in Tampa, Florida. A handful of volunteers with the Tampa chapter of the organization Food Not Bombs (FNB) stood behind tables, passing out rice, beans, and bagels to a slowly moving line of homeless people.
But around 4 p.m., the police showed up. “Take these tables down or these folks will go to jail,” one officer said, gesturing at the Tampa FNB volunteers in a live video on Facebook. The reason? According to Tampa City Ordinance 16.48, a permit is required to distribute goods on public land, and Tampa FNB had not secured one. Seven FNB volunteers were arrested and taken across the street to a police station, where they were issued notices to appear in court. A crowdfunding page created to raise legal defense funds for the volunteers has already reached its goal.
Tampa FNB has set up tables in Lykes Gaslight Park on Tuesday mornings and Saturday afternoons more than 100 times, without conflict. However, before the arrests on the 7th, Tampa police came to the park to warn volunteers that handing out food without a permit was illegal. Members of the organization told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that they suspect the current crackdown was linked to the College Football Playoff National Championship happening in the city over the weekend. According to a representative from Tampa FNB, the organization did not secure a permit because in order to do so, they would need to come up with $1 million in liability insurance and file an application with the city for an additional sum. “We are not a charity group, we are a solidarity movement, and we do not have anywhere near that amount of money,” the representative said, adding that FNB also believes that “showing compassion to one’s neighbors should not require written permission from the government.”
The arrests rankled the FNB community and volunteers, who said in an email that the law enforcement action was an attempt to “criminalize compassion and mutual aid.” But to Keith McHenry, a cofounder of the Food Not Bombs movement, what happened in Tampa falls in line with a pattern that’s been in place for decades. The organization–which hands out only vegan and vegetarian food–was founded in 1980 and now has chapters in more than 1,000 cities and 65 countries; volunteers collect unused goods from local bakeries, stores, and restaurants, and redistribute it to people in need.
FNB is a nonviolent movement, McHenry says, but it’s drawn controversy: Volunteers have been arrested in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and previously in Tampa in 2004. McHenry believes that arrests are efforts on the part of cities to conceal their homeless populations. “When they first arrested us in San Francisco, the police told the media it was because we were making a political statement,” McHenry says. FNB does intend to prove a point about the need to help the homeless–a spokesperson for Tampa FNB told Creative Loafing that they “intend to expose the city’s cruelty in the face of thousands in our community who are struggling with issues of food insecurity, mental and medical health issues, and homelessness”–but it’s doing so in a way that’s become increasingly embattled in cities across the United States.
Tampa is not alone in attempting to regulate the distribution of free meals in outdoor spaces. The National Coalition for the Homeless counted more than 70 cities in the U.S. that have or were considering laws restricting the sharing of food with homeless people. McHenry says that some cities–the latest being Phoenix–are working with consultants who claim that “street feeding” programs perpetuate the cycle of homelessness. Robert Marbut, one such consultant based in San Antonio who’s worked with cities like Fresno, California, and St. Petersburg, Florida, told NPR in 2014 that access to free outdoor meals is “very unproductive, very enabling, and it keeps people out of recovery programs.” In Phoenix, a city task force is working with faith-based and community organizations, which typically distribute food outdoors, to shift inside and partner only with licensed homeless service providers.
However, McHenry points out that receiving food from charities like FNB doesn’t preclude access to resources like job training or drug treatment for people experiencing homelessness; FNB chapters only pass out food a couple times a week, and when people do turn to shelters or indoor resources, they’re not necessarily guaranteed the services the consultants claim they will be. Until cities can step up and offer their homeless populations adequate resources, organizations like FNB, McHenry says, are still meeting a glaring need.
At least in Tampa, the community has rallied to protect the work that FNB does. On the morning of Tuesday, January 10, three days after the arrests, Tampa FNB again set up tables in Lykes Gaslight Park. Several officers were present, but according to a Facebook post by someone at the tables, volunteers and community members linked arms and blocked the police from reaching those serving food. The officers issued another warning that they would be back on Saturday, but at least for now, compassion prevailed over a sticky permitting ordinance, and McHenry expects that it will continue to do so if other cities face similar conflicts.