In the lead up to last weekend’s Gasparilla events, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn tweeted with tongue firmly planted in cheek that, “Next year we build a wall and make the pirates pay for it.”
But on Thursday, Councilman Frank Reddick and some of his colleagues criticized the very real wall – or fence, actually – that the Buckhorn administration constructed at a cost of $32,000 around around Phil Bourquardez Park in Tampa Heights in late December. For years, the park had become a gathering for the homeless, but no more.
“It had really turned into what I can only call a semi-permanent encampment, and we simply can’t have that,” said Dennis Rogero, Buckhorn’s chief of staff, in addressing the council. “The sanitation conditions, the waste, the drug use, including ‘Spice’ that you saw prevalent in some areas.”
For now, the green space is fenced, gated and locked up.
“You sent a sad message across this city and across this country, because basically we’re you’re saying is we’re not giving a damn about the homeless population,” said Reddick.
The fencing occurred just weeks before thousands of people were scheduled to flock to Tampa for the national college football playoff championship. On the weekend before the championship game, the Tampa Police arrested seven members of Food Not Bombs for feeding the homeless in Lykes Gaslight Square without a permit, an incident that generated headlines around the nation.
“You keep running these people away, and you keep running away from the vicinity of the downtown core,” Reddick continued, who said he now is poised to receive calls from people in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood, where he expected the homeless to transition to. “We just can’t keep boxing them out and think we’re going to solve the problem.”
Homelessness has been a problem for every American city since the late 1980’s, but Tampa seems to have had their most contentious issues on the subject only in the past decade.
When Buckhorn, Reddick and the majority of the City Council was running for office back in 2011, the issue of panhandling was front and center of that campaign. The issue has ebbed and flowed since then, but several dozen homeless people (on average) had been congregating in that park for years.
Councilwoman Yolie Capin agreed with Rogero’s description of the park pre-fencing as looking like “an encampment,” but said the city never addressed the situation. “We just threw ’em out and boarded up, so now we have this on our hands,” she said.
The fact that the city used $32,000 of taxpayers dollars to gate the space up did not play with other council members as well.
“That fence ain’t going to stay up there permanently,” said Councilman Charlie Miranda, who said he “appreciated” what the city did, though he also said he didn’t agree with that decision.
“In the future, building walls and gates, really isn’t the direction we want to go,” said Councilman Harry Cohen.
Council chair Mike Suarez said the decision to enclose the space should have been vetted publicly in collaboration with the council, if for no other reason than to let the public know how limiting the options are for the city.
“It was not a good decision to do it without consultation without all of us,” Suarez said. “We need to know what’s happening before something happens, or else we’re going to a much more difficult time cooperating with the administration to get things done in a positive way.”
Rogero said the administration isn’t sure what they’ll do with the space, “but we intend to find one.” He said one possibility could be an expanded transit hub if an expanded street car system does ultimately run up downtown Tampa.
The council had already scheduled a workshop on the issue of feeding the homeless on February 23. Councilman Guido Maniscalco called on city staff to research a program in New Mexico that picks up panhandlers who want to work and gives them odd jobs around the city.