In cities across the country, what some would consider a simple act of charity — feeding the homeless — is actually a legally complicated matter that could violate laws and even send you to jail.
That’s what seven activists found out in Tampa, Florida, on Saturday, as police intervened to stop the distribution of free food to the city’s homeless population in a public park. When the people serving the food refused to stop, police handcuffed them and led them away as others shouted at them, per CLTampa.com.
The reason for the police presence and arrests were because, as one officer says in the video above, the group distributing food was technically trespassing on public land. In Tampa, it is illegal to have an event on public land without a permit and certain insurance. Food Not Bombs, the group handing out the food, did not obtain those, citing the high cost of insurance and the frequency with which they would have to request those permits, per WMNF.
Police had previously warned Food Not Bombs not to proceed with Saturday’s event, but the group did so anyway, per WMNF. According to multiple reports, the police also arrested a man who tried to take food after they had begun arresting servers.
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The group says it plans to return to the same spot Tuesday and continue to serve food while still not applying for a permit, per PINAC.
“We 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, poverty, and homelessness,” a spokesperson for Food Not Bombs wrote in an email.
While Tampa’s ordinance on permits and insurance has existed for years, Food Not Bombs has been serving food to the homeless for more than a decade without incident. In 2004, three activists were arrested, also for not having a permit, but the charges were later dropped and police stopped enforcing the ordinance, per the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Food Not Bombs members suggested to CLTampa.com that the change is a result of the College Football Playoff national championship game, which will take place in Tampa on Monday. Because of the game and the national spotlight that comes along with it, the city does not want its homeless to be congregating in public, visible places, the activists said.
Tampa police, however, stressed that the organization’s lack of a permit was the main issue.
“If you or I go through the park and decide we want to share some food with somebody, that’s not a problem,” Tampa police public information officer Steve Hegarty told WMNF. “Or there’s some people that do it in a parking lot, somewhere or in a church parking lot, that’s not a problem. But, if you’re going to do a set up like that, in one of the city parks, that’s as if the city is endorsing it and taking responsibility for it. There is an ordinance that says that you need a permit to do that.”
The city of Tampa, however, is hardly alone in its prohibition on feeding the homeless without special permits. According to a 2014 study from the National Coalition for the Homeless, more than 50 cities across the country have attempted to enact policies that would restrict or ban feeding the homeless, and 11 of those are in Florida. Florida has also been called the most dangerous state in the U.S. for homeless people based off rates of violence against the homeless and restrictive laws, according to the Miami New Times.