Seven volunteers belonging to Food Not Bombs — an all-volunteer organization that collects vegan and vegetarian food that can no longer be sold from bakeries, grocery stores and food markets, and serves it to the homeless and hungry people in cities across the world — were handcuffed and charged with trespassing on Jan. 7. Their charges amounted to feeding the homeless without the required permit at the Tampa city-owned Lykes Gaslight Square Park in Florida.
Those arrested include Jimmy Dunson, 32; Bert Donaldson, 38; Dezeray Rubinchik, 38; Jason Grimes, 26; William Payton, 46; Roger Butterfield, 26; and Christopher Mince, 30.
In an email sent to the media after the volunteers were released on their own recognizance with notices to appear in court, a Food Not Bombs spokesperson warned they would continue to serve the homeless without applying for a permit:
“Food Not Bombs has no plans to stop sharing food with the homeless and hungry and will continue to defy unjust laws that criminalize compassion and mutual aid. 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. If the city will not address these problems, the least they can do is not get in the way and stop others from addressing these needs. Compassion should never be criminalized.”
In Tampa, a special city permit is needed to feed the homeless and hungry in city parks. However, to set up a table and distribute coffee, chips, bagels, organic beans, and rice twice a week, a city permit can be an expensive affair because it involves getting liability insurance coverage for at least $1million. The insurance requirement, Food Not Bombs claim, is the primary reason why the volunteers do not apply for a permit.
Dunson, one of the seven volunteers who has set up a shop in the city parks two times a week, and who hasn’t had an issue with police since 2004, told Tampa Bay:
“We’re doing an act of kindness and mutual aid, and that should not be criminalized. There shouldn’t be this giant bureaucracy that keeps people from being kind to each other… The city has a lot of money hinging on the events this weekend, so we don’t think it’s a coincidence that now is the time they chose to crack down on our food sharings.”
Police spokesman Steve Hegarty insisted the arrests were made not because the volunteers were serving food at a time when the city was hosting the College Football Playoff National Championship, but because they did not acquire a permit. Hegarty said that written approval from the city is required to set up shop in a city park, as per the city ordinance that prohibits distribution of food to the general public without one.
“We warned them: ‘You set up table, chairs and everything, that’s against ordinance’. We told them exactly what would happen. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, told Mic that Food Not Bombs volunteers would not back down from its mission despite the January 7 incident:
“City governments are free to feed the hungry themselves if they wish, but because they do not attempt to meet the needs of their residents, they have no business telling those of us that are responding to the crisis when and where we should be sharing food. Food Not Bombs will never stop sharing vegan meals with the hungry until war and poverty have ended.”
Despite the warning, Food Not Bombs volunteers arrived at the same location on Jan. 10 [above] and served food as promised — without permit, again — to the homeless and hungry people; there were some tense moments, but no arrests.
Moreover, on Jan. 12, the City Council voted to explore amending the ordinance that requires organizations like Food Not Bombs to obtain city permits and have liability insurance before serving food to the homeless and hungry.
“We’re a compassionate city. This would give us the opportunity to take that one step further and show that,” said council member Guido Maniscalco, who asked for a Feb. 23 workshop on possible changes to allow occasional small-scale food distribution.
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