Driving down Tampa Street near Stetson University College of Law, where we had been invited to an annual cookout with judges and lawyers, I noticed what appeared to be 50 or 60 people spread out in the park next to the campus. For a split second it reminded me of students spread out on any campus lawn in the country, until I looked a little closer and realized these weren’t students but part of Tampa’s homeless population. Nobody was throwing a Frisbee, fiddling with iPads or doing whatever it is students do on campus lawns these days. They were huddled in small groups under blankets or spending the afternoon in sleeping bags. Inside the fenced-in and heavily guarded cookout on the Stetson lawn next door, I felt a little like King Louie XVI with the peasants outside the gates smelling cooking pork.
Monday I went back over to the lawn, which is actually Phil Bourquardez Park. The park fronts the huge Bush Ross law firm, which paid for the design and landscaping of the park. It would appear to be the firm’s front lawn. Bourquardez was actually the son of an early settler. His father’s homestead was pretty much where the park is today. Phil grew up to be, among other things, a jailer. By Monday morning there were only about a dozen homeless people spread out across the park. I parked the car and walked across the grass. One thing I’ve learned is that the homeless set up their own protective groups, and I didn’t get 30 feet before three of them came over, curious as to what I might be doing in “their” park. I asked them why they hadn’t checked in over at the Salvation Army. A guy named “Remy” said at $10 a night it wasn’t worth it, although if it got colder this week he might reconsider. “The police don’t harass us much and we almost always have people coming by with food. I got woke up last night around midnight and it was some religious group handing out sandwiches.” He also added that the people at the lawyers’ cookout had sent over a lot of leftovers Saturday night. “We don’t really need food,” said one whose face was barely visible through a series of wrapped scarves. “I’d like a job,” he said, adding that he had not worked in more than two years but was a good carpenter. By now I had attracted a crowd, including one who tried to convince the others that I was just a cop and not to say anything. I moved on. I suppose you could call the park one of those “pockets of poverty” that the city, like almost every other municipal government, has spent forever trying to eradicate. A couple of blocks away I drove past the Salvation Army. Outside and lined up down the street were roughly a hundred people, huddled against walls or bushes. It was getting close to noon and I couldn’t tell if they were just out of the shelter or waiting for it to reopen. On a windy and darkening day you had to wonder if this is the way it will always be.