RNC protest camp reality not matching the dream
TAMPA - Things are less than idyllic in "Romneyville." The tent city on the northern fringe of downtown was envisioned as a thriving base camp for people protesting the Republican National Convention and as a temporary haven for the city's homeless. But that's not the way it has worked out, organizers said, because Romneyville is broke. With hardly any donations coming in, there is no money to feed people camped there and not enough tents to keep its estimated 180 occupants shielded from the blazing sun or sudden afternoon thunderstorms, said the Rev. Bruce Wright, one of the tent city's founders."We need about $3,000 to get it going," said Wright, a member of the Poor People's Economic Rights campaign. "What we have is a trickle." Wright said the camp, which sits in a commercial lot behind the Army Navy Surplus Market and an adjacent gravel lot at 1312 N. Tampa St., should have had about 300 people living there, planning rallies, speaking out on the plight of the homeless and protesting the convention. The threat of Tropical Storm Isaac and the 3,500 extra police officers hired for convention security could have scared hundreds of people off, Wright said. But Romneyville has other problems. Over the past four months, at least 30 people, mostly the homeless, have been booted out of the camp for violating a policy of no drugs and alcohol. "We need to help (the homeless), but we're a political homeless camp," Wright said. "We need to maintain decorum." On Tuesday, an argument broke out between two campers. Scuffles and fights are not uncommon, residents said. "This is like herding cats," organizer John Alexander said. "You're working with disparate groups, trying to find similarities among them." Gaylen Hall, an activist who visited the camp Tuesday, said the heat and humidity could be influencing how people act. "And people are getting only about three hours of sleep in less than ideal conditions," he said. Tarah Colon, who is living in Romneyville with her 11-month-old son, said she's also experienced problems living there. "Someone stole our money," she said. "If we don't raise $200 ... we won't be able to pay for the vans" to get home. Then there's the state of the camp. Several of its trademark pink tents that first garnered Romneyville recognition were ripped to shreds by summer storms over the past few months, Wright said. With no new donated tents, 30 people sleep under a flatbed trailer on the property that should have been used as a stage for speeches, Wright said. The camp has no running water and its makeshift kitchen is running low on food. Residents have hung wet clothing on a rope strung between two parking meters, or draped them over a barbwire fence. Colon said Romneyville may not look like much, but that's the point. "We think it's important for people to see that we are living like a third world country in the richest country in the world," she said. Margaret McKenna, a Catholic nun from Pennsylvania, said she's been living in Romneyville for a couple of days. She calls the conditions there "adequate." "It's a little stressful," she said. "But everybody's got good spirits." Alexander, who donated $1,500 of his own money to get the tent city up and running, said this is his first time organizing an activist camp. He already has plans to establish an "Obamaville" in Charlotte, N.C., for the Democratic National Convention. "This is a learning experience for me," he said.
[email protected] (813) 259-7920 Tribune interns Brandi Hollis and Gareth Rees contributed to this report.