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The complex nature of feeding the homeless

                                                         VIDEO: PHIL AMMANN

Homelessness is an intricate issue, much like the relationship between those enforcing regulations on the homeless community and the people who seek to aid them.

Those sides clashed Sunday at city-owned Lykes Gaslight Square Park in downtown Tampa when seven volunteers from Tampa Food Not Bombs, an organization who helps feed the homeless, were arrested for doing just that.

A video posted on Facebook showed the officers warning the organization of the laws they were violating and after the volunteers continued to serve the homeless men and women, the group was arrested.

Gautam Koipallil, the outreach coordinator for Hope for the Homeless at USF and head of the Hunger and Homeless division of the Center for Leadership & Civic Engagement, said officials in Tampa continue to focus on the wrong thing, though he said the subject is not an easy issue to handle.

“From our experiences, we see both the city and the county neglect to look at their needs and they’re often more interested in putting regulations on what you can’t do and what land they can’t occupy,” Koipallil said. “It just seems like it takes away a fundamental right to help another human being.”

There are close to 2,000 people suffering from homelessness in the Tampa area, enough to fill the Juniper Poplar residence hall twice over. 

But Koipallil and others like him face the issue of not only attempting to keep those without a bed fed and nourished, but also the close to 700,000 food-insecure residents of Tampa.

“This isn’t a homelessness issue, it’s a hunger issue,” Koipallil said. “This is more than just feeding someone that’s homeless, this is about feeding someone that’s (food) insecure.”

Hope for the Homeless, a student organization on campus, volunteers at various places in Tampa that help to aid the homeless community. It’s an experience, he said, which is unlike any other.

“It’s rewarding because you get to see how grateful they are,” Koipallil said. “When we’re sitting here in an educational setting and we’re given student loans and we’re given money and meal plans, when you see how appreciative someone is from just a simple meal or breakfast once a day.

“I don’t think arresting people who are giving that to someone else is at all OK.”

But the members who were arrested weren’t just handing out sandwiches at random. They were setting up tables in a city park without a permit, which is why police spokesman Steve Hegarty said the seven individuals were arrested, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The permit required ensures the city is not liable if anyone is hurt at the event being held on city property. It also comes with a liability insurance coverage requirement of at least $1 million, which is why many who deliver food choose not to get the permit. 

The permit is necessary if equipment like tables or chairs are used in an area, as it then becomes an event rather than simply a charitable deed. Those who wish to buy a meal or bring a sandwich to someone sitting in a park is completely legal. It is the use of the tables and organizing of an event that can cause a legal dilemma due to the possibility of harm. 

With new developments taking over the Tampa area, Koipallil said the homeless population is being “squeezed into a corner,” with the Tampa officials doing little to help fix the problem.

 “I don’t think they’re doing all that they could at the political, judicial level,” Koipallil said. 

Groups like Tampa Food Not Bombs and other organizations hope to change that today when they plan to take the floor at the Tampa City Council meeting at 9 a.m. to voice their concern of the issue.

Koipallil said that he will be in attendance and hopes it will begin to reverse the stigma that seems to linger around the homeless population.

“People like to see the bad and inflate it and find reasons not to help,” Koipallil said. “It just boils down to whether you’re hungry or not, or homeless or not. They’re humans too. I think people fail to see that a lot.”