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The price of nice

It has been 18 months since he last held a job and more than a year since he had a place to call home, and food is hard to come by.

He says his friends call him Danny, and he leaves it at that. Danny is part of the third party in a two-way struggle in Massey Park in downtown Tampa. Each Sunday, a group of students go to the park offering free food for Danny and other homeless people. But the police say these students are breaking the law.

The students, members of the nonviolent activist group Food Not Bombs, are in violation of a city ordinance banning the distribution of free food in public places without a permit, according to Captain Bob Guidara, spokesman for the Tampa Police.

Three arrests, including two of USF students, have been made on charges of trespassing in the last two weeks at the public park. The charges could have been worse, Guidara said, but the police were not trying to make things difficult for the students.

“We can stack the charges if that will make them happier,” Guidara said. “Our intent was for them to leave the park so they would not be feeding people, and they refused by not leaving the park. They were in violation of park rules, and that’s why they were trespassing. In addition to that, you have to have a permit in that park and any park to distribute for health concerns. There are facilities downtown that are in place to feed the homeless. I guess they disagreed with the ordinances and kept come back after receiving warnings for trespassing.”

James Dunson and Lily Lewis, both USF students, were arrested on March 28. Mark Parrish, 24, was arrested on March 21. All three, who were detained at the scene and released without being taken to jail, have April 19 court dates. Another USF student, Denise Aguero, was given a warning by the police on March 21 but was not charged.

One facility for homeless people in the area, according to Aguero, is the Salvation Army shelter downtown, where they can shower and sleep, but only by paying $10 each night can they eat there.

“The people that we talked to are still hungry. There are still people who are hungry, and when they have to pay even just $10 for food, they can’t afford it,” Aguero said. “The different places where they can go to eat are open at different times, and are in different places.”

Guidara also said the students had opportunities to comply with the law but decided to ignore it.

“The first week (on March 14), they were given verbal warnings. We’ve made every effort to contact everyone involved and talked to them about alternatives,” he said. “The issue is not about feeding the homeless. The issue is that you are feeding the homeless and failing to meet city codes and ordinances overseeing it. The officer explained to these individuals, who we admit are well-intending, why they are not allowed to be giving out food there. City parks, when that has taken place, have become campsites for the homeless. They have been bathing in the fountains. It just makes the parks unattractive to the rest of the city’s residents.”

Danny laughed at the idea of the city stopping people from feeding the homeless, saying the city is not out to protect anyone’s health but rather to hide the growing number of homeless people in its streets.

“Why would they say giving away food to the hungry is a health hazard? It seems like that is healthier than just letting them starve,” he said. “I think I know what’s healthy for my body, and going hungry isn’t healthy. The city isn’t out to protect anyone’s health. They just want to pretend we are not here.”

Dunson and Lewis did not want to talk about the arrests, but Parrish tells a different story than that of Guidara.

“I didn’t really understand what was going on when the police showed up,” Parrish said. “The officer never really gave us an explanation as to why we were being arrested. This was my first time at the park, so I had never gotten a warning before.”

Parrish also said the officer was “bragging” about his reputation for being tough on homeless people, a story which Guidara called “ridiculous.”

Danny, who called himself “a veteran of homelessness,” sided with the police — sort of.

“I’ve never had problems with that cop before, so I don’t know about that. But there is definitely a bad attitude towards the homeless people here from the city,” Danny said. “It’s like, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ They like to pretend that, if they can’t see the homeless people in the streets, than that means the problem isn’t there. We all have to go somewhere.”

The students were distributing stir-fry, fresh vegetables, pizza and bread, among other things. The students went back Sunday, this time with other groups joining the cause. Whereas the previous two weeks saw less than 10 homeless people take up the Food Not Bombs members on their offer each week, more than 20 people showed up yesterday. The police did not stop them this week, Parrish said, speculating that the police were afraid of the press and other groups aware of what was happening.

Guidara said the absence was an effort to avoid further conflict, though.

“We didn’t receive any complaints and we thought this week we would be complaint-driven,” Guidara said. “We would have had any right to go down there and make arrests, but we’re trying to avoid conflict. These students are trying to push the law as far as they can. We are trying to find a resolution. It’s frustrating that they are unwilling to even work with us. If there are continuing violations of this ordinance, than we will have to act accordingly.”

Aguero said the issue is not as simple as attaining a permit.

“The police make it sound like getting a permit is the solution, but it isn’t,” she said. “We are trying to help people, not cause problems. We shouldn’t need to get a permit to help people who need it.”