Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A groundbreaking survey of homelessness being released today found that
704,000 people nationwide sought shelter at least once in a three-month

Families with children accounted for one-third of those seeking emergency
shelter or transitional housing between February and April 2005, the most
recent period studied, according to the report by the Department of Housing
and Urban Development. The rest were individuals, mostly adult men. Nearly
half were black.

The count covered only those seeking shelter, not people living on the
street, so the total number of homeless people would be higher.

"This first-of-its-kind study is a huge leap forward in our understanding of
not only how many people are homeless, but also what their needs are," HUD
Secretary Alphonso Jackson says. The report says, for example, that at least
a quarter are disabled.

HUD, which briefed USA TODAY on the report Monday, says it is the most
comprehensive government estimate ever of homelessness. Previous counts
looked only at the number of people homeless on a given day or week.

The three-month figure — equal to the population of South Dakota — is an
estimate based on a sample of 80 communities. It will serve as a baseline
for annual reports to Congress and may be expanded to include people living
on the street.

Martha Burt, a homelessness scholar at the Urban Institute, says the new
database has shortcomings. For example, it has limited information about the
health of those seeking shelter, and she thinks future versions will have
trouble tracking those living on the street.

HUD's report also cites a previously reported one-night survey of hundreds
of communities in January 2005. That survey found 754,000 homeless people,
including 45% who were living on the street. USA TODAY published its own
estimate of 727,000 in October 2005, based on earlier tallies.

The three-month count found that on an average day, 335,000 people sought
shelter, but more than twice that number sought shelter at least once during
the entire period.

Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of
Pennsylvania who co-wrote the HUD report, says it's unclear whether
homelessness has increased or declined, because past estimates were done

He says poverty among blacks, who are more likely to live in urban areas,
runs deeper than for other groups.

Culhane says families with kids have remained a steady one-third of the
homeless, and he says government needs to do more to provide housing, such
as expanding rent subsidies.

One of every three homeless kids has a diagnosable psychiatric disorder,
such as post-traumatic stress, by age 8, says Ellen Bassuk, a psychiatrist
who is president of the National Center on Family Homelessness.

"They have trouble sitting still and learning in school," she says.

Nine of 10 homeless mothers have been victims of violence, often domestic,
she says.

Michael Stoops, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless welcomes
the new count but says more housing and shelters are needed as well as a
focus on the root causes of the problem. He says homelessness "can happen to

By Wendy Koch

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Partnership: Dignified homeless shelters needed:

One out of 100 Americans will experience homelessness this year, according to some estimates.

To gauge the extent of the problem in Sarasota and Manatee counties, the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness held a census of all the homeless in the area.

On Jan. 29 at noon, volunteers for the agency assembled to search the two counties for people who would be homeless for the next 24 hours. The volunteers handed out donated toiletries and asked the people to participate in a survey that asked where they stay, why they're homeless and what services they need.

"We found nine camps," said Connie Insley, a volunteer.

A camp is a group of homeless people, usually in a wooded area, like a small town.

"There is a hierarchy within the camp," said Nancy Smith, a volunteer. "It is just like anyone's house."

Camps are eventually broken up by the police, which makes the members leery of anyone, said volunteer Jim McEntee.

Avery Burke, another volunteer for the organization, also works for one of the nonprofit organizations that participates. He often goes out looking for homeless offering assistance.

He said that homelessness is not always a choice. Sometimes an addiction or mental illness makes it hard for someone to get his life in order. Sometimes a financial problem compounds and spirals out of control.

"It (homelessness) could be any one of us at any day," he said. "Miss one car payment or get hurt and lose your job, you could wind up homeless."


The Suncoast Partnership is a nonprofit organization that works with other nonprofit organizations in the two counties to help eliminate homelessness. More than 45 agencies participate.

Richard Martin is the chair of the Suncoast Partnership. Martin said the partnership is focusing on finding solutions to the problems of homelessness, and surveys like this one will help.

However, Martin also said there is no one specific solution for all the homeless because each situation is different.

"Some people can't just decide not to be homeless anymore," Burke said.

Martin said that the lack of affordable housing in the area is a large contributor to homelessness.

Martin and directors from the allied agencies would like there to be more shelters for the homeless in the area.

"A roof gives dignity. Dignified shelters are the first step," Martin said.

Currently, the Salvation Army in Sarasota and Bradenton provide the only shelters in the area.

Martin and other directors said government help is not enough to help fight homelessness.

"It takes a village," Martin said.

The results of the survey are expected in late March 2007.


Sun Herald Staff Writer

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sarasota and Manatee agencies receive homeless assistance grants:

Four local agencies made the cut Tuesday for $1.4 billion in homeless assistance funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Bradenton and Sarasota branches of the Salvation Army were big winners, along with the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness and Jewish Family and Children's Services Inc.

The four grants topped $400,000, said Adrienne Lazeroff, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership, which wrote the HUD grant on behalf of applying agencies in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

The Salvation Army of Sarasota got the largest grant, $170,432, to continue its Families in Transitional Housing, or FAITH, program, Lazeroff said.

FAITH families commit to a structured program that will help them get out of debt. In return, they are provided with rent-free apartments for one year while they save for a down payment for housing, Lazeroff said.

Among groups that lost out in Tuesday's announcement was Family Resources Inc. of Bradenton, which was denied its bid for $315,000 to build a residence for homeless teenagers and their babies.

First Step Inc., a substance abuse counseling service serving both counties, also failed in its bid for $78,483 to build permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless persons recovering from chemical dependency.

"It's really disappointing," said Anne Melton, Family Resources executive director, when she heard the news. "But are we going to quit because of this setback? No!"

The Salvation Army of Bradenton and Jewish Family & Children's Services of Sarasota-Manatee Inc. each received $100,000 for homeless-prevention programs.

The Bradenton Salvation Army will use the money to provide rental assistance to prevent evictions, foreclosures and utility shutoffs, said spokeswoman Ashley Canesse.

"It's a miracle that we have received this funding for the fourth consecutive year," said Canesse. "It's even more of a miracle when you realize how the need has escalated."

Canesse said evictions in Manatee County for 2005-06 were up 14.6 percent compared to the previous year, while foreclosures increased by 36.8 percent for the same period, according to county figures.

"I don't want to raise hopes that this money is here now," said Canesse. "The funds have been awarded but won't be received until a contract is signed, and that could take a couple of months."

Jewish Family and Children's Services provides assistance through the Building Strong Families Program for those at risk of being homeless who commit to long-term goals to stabilize their finances.

"We are delighted to receive this gift so we can continue and enhance the level of care that we can provide," said Rose Chapman, president and CEO.

The agency has helped 412 families, including 960 children, since the Building Strong Families program began three years ago.

The Suncoast Partnership received $37,793 to expand a computerized database for tracking the homeless.

"We are very pleased to get the money," said Lazeroff. "A baseline on who is homeless in our community is critical to our goal of eliminating homelessness."

An expanded database will help bring more homeless assistance funds into the Manatee and Sarasota counties, Lazeroff said.

That's good news for Melton, who is trying to raise $2.5 million to fund and operate the home for teen moms.

"All we need is one really good one to give us a kick-start," said Melton, who recalled it took eight years to raise funding to build the agency's runaway shelter. "If it takes us that long to get money for this project, we will be on the second generation of babies."

Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at 745-7049 or at

Grant recipients

• The Salvation Army of Sarasota: $170,432

• The Salvation Army of Bradenton: $100,000

• Jewish Family and Children's Services: $100,000

• Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness: $37,793

Bradenton Herald Staff Writer

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Rising costs. Fewer housing options. Less help. It's a scenario that sparks fears of a spike in Florida's homeless population.

Thanks to a few tents and a couple of police officers armed with box cutters, St. Petersburg's homeless problem has gotten national attention.

But to those who track homelessness and its causes, last month's tent slashings aren't as alarming as what could happen in the future if housing and government funding trends continue. Consider:

- Staggering tax and insurance increases are forcing landlords to raise rents - Pinellas' average rent increased 12 percent in two years - even as apartments are disappearing due to hurricane damage and condominium conversions.

- Federal money for building more affordable housing is dwindling or disappearing, while state lawmakers last year refused to repeal a cap on the state's affordable housing trust fund.

- Social service programs that help keep people stable and out of homelessness, including rent subsidies, job training and health care programs, are waning even as the number of people needing them increases.

The result of these trends, housing and homeless experts fear, is that moderate income earners will squeeze low income earners out of the affordable rental market and that thousands on the brink of homelessness will topple over.

"The safety net is gone and there simply is no way for them to survive," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.

The effects of stagnant incomes, shrinking housing and slackening aid already are being felt. Statewide and across west-central Florida, homeless counts are rising, from an estimated 1,500 in Pinellas in 2000 to 4,400 in 2006. Hillsborough saw its homeless population jump from an estimated 3,600 in 1999 to 11,000 in 2005.

Advocates for the homeless fear those numbers are a sign of things to come. They worry that people whose incomes sheltered them from homelessness in the past might be vulnerable now.

"We're talking about people from median income on down. People from 100 percent of median income on down just aren't making it," Snyder said.

* * *

Homelessness is getting a lot of attention these days, in St. Petersburg, in Florida and across the nation.

Specifically, states, communities and even the federal government are adopting multiyear plans to end "chronic homelessness." The chronically homeless are people who have been homeless more than a year or homeless several times in the past few years. Often they have serious underlying problems such as substance abuse or mental illness.

Conventional wisdom says these people need "supportive housing" - long-term living units with access to counseling and other services. Many states and cities, Florida and St. Petersburg included, are working to create more of those living areas.

But experts say it does little good to have a homeless policy without a housing policy. Many people who are homeless on a given night simply couldn't make the rent due to a short-term financial crisis like a medical or auto repair expense, or a lack of cash for security deposits. And the drug-addicted and mentally ill need a place to live after they've stayed in a shelter or similar space long enough to stabilize.

"Homelessness is a housing issue at its root," said Tom Pierce, director of the state's Office on Homelessness. "And it's not just a low income issue anymore. The middle class is being priced out of the market. Teachers, firefighters are having trouble finding housing in their communities."

Last year, Pierce's office, which gives $400 per year per qualifying family facing eviction when unexpected expenses eat up the rent money, ran out of money in October. Lawmakers added more, but Pierce plans to ask for almost twice as much - nearly $4-million - for the next fiscal year.

But if people can't find an affordable place to live in the first place, the emergency fund can't help much. That's especially true in Pinellas, where units of affordable housing are disappearing and there's little land left on which to build. From 2003 to 2005, some 4,500 of the county's mobile homes disappeared; developers bought out the mobile home parks to build more expensive developments.

From 2000 to 2005, 4,400 Pinellas apartment units were converted to condominiums. Meanwhile, average home values in Pinellas jumped 72 percent during that time, while the average rent jumped 12 percent from 2004 to 2006.

* * *

Both county and state homeless strategy plans acknowledge the need for more affordable housing. But it's ultimately up to the Florida Housing Finance Corp. to arrange for construction.

But don't look for a rash of building soon. The housing corporation's most recent annual report - for 2005 - outlines the difficulties facing the state right now.

"This past year has been a year unlike any other for affordable housing in Florida," director Stephen P. Auger wrote in the report. Hurricanes, storm evacuees, the costs of land, construction, insurance and utilities, plus apartments converting to condominiums have put significant pressure on the state's ability to provide affordable housing, Auger said.

On top of that, many agreements the state made years ago with apartment complexes to set aside units for low income renters will soon expire. (The complexes received favorable loans through the housing corporation in exchange for the set-asides.)

Funding for federal Section 8 rent vouchers has been flat for a number of years - most housing authorities, including St. Petersburg's, have long waiting lists. And state lawmakers, over the objections of affordable housing advocates, last year chose to retain a $243-million cap on the state's affordable housing trust fund, and to keep the rest of the $940-million free to use for other emergencies.

"From afar people look at our housing trust fund and they salivate, but only a small percentage gets spent," said Freyja Harris, program director of the Florida Coalition for the Homeless.

"The problem is only going to get worse, but the funding is not going to increase unless that cap is reversed," Harris said.

But restoration of significant spending, whether directly on housing programs or indirectly on supportive social programs, is considered unlikely in this budget environment.

On the state level, lawmakers are expecting a very tight budget year, and community organizations that provide social services to the homeless and other low income Floridians are gearing up for a fight for funds.

Recent changes in the state's Medicaid program, which provides health care to the poor, have forced some community mental health organizations to lay off workers whose job it is to ensure that mentally ill clients at risk for homelessness follow their treatment plan.

Florida likely will give back some $17-million in federal funds because the state, to control its share of cost in a joint children's health care program, tightened eligibility requirements.

At the federal level, at a time when wages are stagnant and a St. Petersburg resident must earn $13.31 an hour to afford a one-bedroom apartment (or else work 80 hours a week at minimum wage), funds for a job training program considered key to preventing homelessness have been reduced the past few years.

President Bush has proposed a second round of cuts to the country's social service programs, including Medicaid and Medicare, as well as eliminating the Social Services Block Grant.

These things keep Snyder of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless awake at night.

"It's one thing to get people off the street today," Snyder said. "But the long-term issue of where are people going to live is a real concern."

By ALISA ULFERTS St. Petersburg Times
Published February 18, 2007

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Let us consider safe and sanitary homeless camps. Robin Miller of Bradenton recently wrote a thoughtful post about one approach to homelessness. Readers of “Sarasota Speaks” may already have encountered his post. The entire article may be found here: I asked Robin for permission to excerpt portions for this blog, and it was kindly granted. What follows is from Robin:

Homeless shelters are chronically underfunded and almost always overcrowded, especially in the winter. Remember, shelters aren’t just there for the “visible homeless” — the booze-smelling panhandlers who bother us in the supermarket parking lot — but also for families and non-boozing singles who have been hit with high medical bills or lost their jobs, and because they had no money (or on a landlord’s whim) got evicted from their homes and couldn’t find someplace else they could afford to rent.

Some municipalities rent hotel or motel rooms to house homeless when their shelters are full. This is a hugely expensive short-term solution to a long-term (and growing) problem. My solution is simpler and cheaper: Licensed, legal homeless camps. The reality is that homeless camps are the wave of the future. We are going to have more of them, so we might as well have clean, decent ones with toilets, showers, and electricity.

Except they don’t need to be “homeless” camps, just campgrounds where anyone is free to stay as long as they pay minimal rent and/or help maintain the place.
Campgrounds are far cheaper to run than indoor shelters. The same $10,000 that might only help a dozen people stay in a homeless shelter for a month might help 100 or more “live rough” in tents, but with water, electricity, and showers available, along with simple firepits and lanais where they could cook without burning down their tents. A $25/week, $100/month tent campground would be the perfect place to live for someone who is truly serious about going to school or saving up for a monthly (instead of weekly) apartment or who wants to set aside enough money to eventually buy a house. It could be a haven for a poet who wants to devote full-time to her writing and is willing to put up with crude living conditions in exchange for a chance to live for six months on a few thousand dollars.

Naturally, this kind of living situation wouldn’t work well in Maine or Michigan. People would die there in the winter. But I live in Florida, where simple, outdoor-based living is feasible (if not necessarily comfortable) year-round.
A modern tent is nearly as comfortable as many of the shacks early settlers here built. And what about trailers? As in all those Katrina-surplus FEMA trailers? Wouldn’t they be good enough for rock-bottom housing? I could live in one and get by. Even my wife could, if she really had to. We’ve discussed all this, and have decided that while we really like our comfortable house and two cars, we could survive life in a camp trailer or tent — and still find many moments of joy.
The thing is, this level of living is now illegal almost everywhere. A woman down south of us on Florida’s west coast was running a non-subsidized homeless shelter that was really just a fenced lot with some tents and junk trailers on it, and she got shut down over building code violations even though her beneficiaries were undoubtedly living better on her property than they had lived elsewhere.
So change the laws!

I suspect that many churches and social service groups would happily fund and run simple “homeless” campgrounds if such things were legal. I’m sure many church-run campgrounds would prohibit drinking and drugs on the property. Some might require attendance at religious services. As long as they weren’t receiving government money, why shouldn’t they set up whatever rules they like?
And if laws allowed, I’m sure some private operators might even open for-profit campgrounds — and make a go of them. 20 camping spaces per acre, each bringing in $100 per month or more, could pay a considerable mortgage. Even with a two-acre campground only half-full, that’s still $2000 per month, which is more than enough to build and maintain a simple place, especially if residents are required to pitch in a certain number of hours every month to keep the place tidy and secure.
The thing is, we have this dichotomy in our society: There is (duh) more money in building expensive houses than in building cheap ones. Ditto apartments. Hardly anyone is building new apartments that auto parts store clerks can afford to rent. And even as “regular” housing gets further out of reach for low-income workers almost every year, we are unwilling — as a society — to consider simple, low-cost alternative housing. Indeed, in many areas building codes have made it illegal to even try to build something bottom-rungers can afford.

We are going to have homeless people camping out, like it or not, and current real estate and employment trends mean we’ll have more of them doing it 10 years from now than today. The least we can do is make the “homeless” experience as clean and safe as we can, for as many people as possible. And that means legal camping, with rules and regulations designed to keep campsites clean and safe, instead of consigning our “homeless” to lives of filth and misery the way we do today.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Should panhandling be illegal in Manatee County?

I attended the Manatee County Commission “workshop” on the proposed panhandling ordinance. Commissioner Ron Gettman chaired the meeting. He was joined by representatives from most law enforcement agencies.
He was careful to begin the meeting by pointing out that this was not about homelessness, the ordinance was about panhandlers. The primary justification offered for the ordinance was that there had been complaints from the community. Gettman also said that it was a public safety issue.
A powerpoint presentation was then given describing all of the current financial assistance that the commission is currently providing for homeless services. Manatee County is currently providing approximately 1.4 million dollars to social service agencies to work on homelessness issues.
The county attorney then outlined the proposed ordinance. Essentially, the ordinance would outlaw: 1) “aggresive panhandling,” and 2. any solicitation conducted within 15 feet of any roadway. This ordinance may be presented to the full county commission for a public hearing on March 13, 2007. The law enforcement community voiced their support for the ordinance. A representative from a homeless coalition pointed out that their might be problems with the proposed penalties, and suggested that violators be required to perform community service.The floor was then opened for public comment.
Approximately ten people spoke in favor of the ordinance. Some of the comments had little to do with panhandling but instead focused on other issues, such as public urination or campsites built on private property. A realtor complained that the panhandlers were depressing the home market. Others complained about enabling the lifestyle choices of those who used solicited money for cigarettes or alcohol. There were also legitimate complaints about panhandlers that were disturbing particular neighborhoods.
I spoke out against the ordinance. A similar law from St. Petersburg has been declared unconstitutional. In 2002, Cook County, Illinois paid $475,000 to settle a lawsuit filed after persons were arrested under a similar unconstitutional ordinance. I also argued that jail beds should be treated like a scarce resource and not used to confine those who have “lifestyles” that we disagree with. Manatee County will be responsible for paying for legal representation for anyone jailed under the new ordinance. Furthermore, anyone arrested will be responsible for court costs and other fees. Failure to pay will result in additional consequences, such as further incarceration or driver's license suspension. The Suncoast Partnership to end Homelessness is willing to work with Manatee County and law enforcement to come up with creative solutions to the problem that do not involve criminalization.

For the Bradenton Herald article on the workshop, go to:

Here is a letter to the editor from Adrienne B. Lazeroff, executive director of Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, serving Manatee and Sarasota counties.

As Manatee County considers an anti-panhandling ordinance, we must stop to ask ourselves, is criminalization the solution to the problem?

We can all agree that panhandling impacts our community, but there is a lot of disagreement on the solution for curbing it. The solutions that we seek should address the underlying problem: poverty.

When people are arrested and charged under panhandling ordinances, they develop a criminal record, making it more difficult to obtain employment or housing, thereby exacerbating poverty and its problems. It is also paramount that we consider the effects of criminalization on the accessibility of needed services, as such measures often result in moving people away from services.

Our community needs to consider constructive approaches, such as outreach (directing those who panhandle to mental health or substance abuse services). We should be working together to achieve real solutions to prevent and end poverty, such as dedicating more resources to affordable and transitional housing, health care, and the creation of jobs with a living wage.

Here is the editorial from the Sarasota Herald Tribune from 2/9/07
The risk of banning beggars
County needs to consider potential costs of ordinance

Adam Tebrugge doesn't hold popular views about Manatee County's proposed panhandling ordinance, but they warrant a full discussion before the County Commission votes on the plan.

Tebrugge, a member of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness and an assistant public defender, was the only person who spoke against the ordinance at a forum this week. He says the proposal may prove more costly than its proponents foresee.

The ordinance, drafted by a task force of law-enforcement officers and attorneys led by County Commissioner Ron Getman, would ban people from panhandling within 15 feet of a public road in the county and its cities. Also targeted are beggars who threaten or intimidate people on roadsides and in public places, including business parking lots.

Violators would be warned, then face up to 60 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500.

For safety reasons, the restrictions also would apply to people using sidewalks for charity fund-raisers such as car washes.

As many speakers pointed out this week, panhandlers who create traffic hazards and harass passers-by pose a genuine problem. County intervention is justified.

But Tebrugge warns that Manatee's proposal could face a costly legal challenge. He cited a Second District Court of Appeal ruling in 1995 declaring a St. Petersburg panhandling ordinance unconstitutional, and a $475,000 settlement that Cook County, Ill., paid in 2002 as the result of a lawsuit involving its panhandling ordinance.

Getman asked the county's legal staff to examine those cases. Other issues raised by Tebrugge deserve a closer look, too.

Tebrugge pointed out that those arrested would be entitled to legal representation, an expense that would most likely be borne by taxpayers. And panhandlers who are jailed will take up increasingly scarce bed space -- again, at a cost to taxpayers.

It's possible, of course, that this ordinance will generate few arrests or jail terms and serve, instead, as a giant "Panhandlers Unwelcome" sign that prompts most beggars to leave Manatee.

But before county officials commit to displaying that sign with this ordinance, they should be certain they have a strong grasp of what could go wrong.

In the meantime, all Manatee residents should heed the advice of advocates for the poor: Don't give money to panhandlers. The donations are better directed to local agencies equipped to help the needy. Handing cash or coins to panhandlers, some of whom use the money to feed alcohol and/or drug addictions, will only perpetuate the problem.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

In Orlando, a law against feeding the homeless – and a debate over Samaritans' rights:

At Lake Eola park, there is much beauty to behold: robust palms, beds of cheery begonias, a cascading lake fountain, clusters of friendly egrets and swans, an amphitheater named in honor of Walt Disney.
Then there are the signs.


Visit the park's restrooms, and you'll find this sign on the wall above the hand dryers:


Since joggers and dog walkers tend not to snooze in flower beds, and because employees at the glittering office towers around Lake Eola don't scrub laundry in park sinks, it's clear, says Monique Vargas, at whom the notices are targeted.

“They're talking to us, to the homeless,” says Vargas, 28, who says she has lived on the streets, in parks or under overpasses, since age 16. “It's a way of saying, 'Your kind isn't wanted in our city.'”

Orlando, population 200,000, works hard to conjure the image of a true-life Pleasantville: a safe, welcoming place where visitors can soak up year-round sunshine and devour choreographed experiences at palm-ringed theme parks. But its spotless sidewalks, sparkling lakes and twinkling skyline belie a real city with real maladies – most notably, a surging homeless population that authorities are struggling to control.

After a law that banned panhandling was struck down by the courts, the city tried to discourage aggressive beggars by obliging them to carry ID cards, and later by confining them to 3-by-15-foot “panhandling zones” painted in blue on sidewalks downtown.

Despite these laws, the number of people living on the streets of the Orlando metro area swelled, from roughly 5,000 in 1999 to an estimated 8,500 today, dwarfing the city's shelter capacity for 2,000 people.

So in July, the city commission tried a “supply-side” approach: It passed an ordinance regulating the feeding of large groups of people in Orlando's downtown parks.

Those who wished to feed more than 25 hungry individuals at parks within a 2-mile radius of City Hall could do so, but only if they obtained a “Large Group Feeding Permit” from the parks department – and no one would be granted more than two feeding permits a year.

No exceptions.

For the first time anyone in Orlando could remember, not only would panhandlers find themselves in the crosshairs of the law, but so would those trying to help them.

“It's now illegal to feed the homeless in Orlando, Florida,” Jay Leno, host of NBC's “Tonight Show,” told a studio audience last summer in Burbank, Calif., during his opening monologue. “Have you seen the fat people walking around Disney World? We should make it illegal to feed THEM.”

But when the Orlando Sentinel posted Leno's wisecrack on its Web site, local bloggers weren't laughing.

“Feeding the homeless only encourages more homelessness,” one resident, with the moniker “Justin Credible,” wrote. He then summed up his argument in an equation. “Less Homeless
Less Problems
Better Place to Live.”

Another, “TG,” didn't oppose feeding the destitute. “But there are places set up for this. Soup kitchens exist ... It is not unreasonable to want to keep Lake Eola Park from becoming a homeless cafeteria.”

William Beem added: “For what it's worth, Las Vegas enacted a similar law at the same time as Orlando. Tourist towns think alike.”

Indeed, a week before Orlando's ordinance took effect, Las Vegas criminalized giving food to even a single transient in a city park.

In August, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit challenging the Las Vegas ban, saying it violated constitutional protections of free speech, right to assembly and right to practice one's religion. A federal court in Nevada has prohibited the city from enforcing the ordinance until a final ruling is issued.

Advocates for the homeless feared it wouldn't be long before other cities passed similar laws. As it happens, they were right.

Already, the cities of Dallas, Fort Myers, Fla., Gainesville, Fla., Wilmington, N.C., Atlanta, and Santa Monica, Calif., have laws restricting or outright prohibiting the feeding of the homeless. In Fairfax County, Va., homemade meals and meals made in church kitchens may not be distributed to the homeless unless first approved by the county.

Other cities, including Miami, are considering similar anti-feeding measures.

“We've seen cities going beyond punishing homeless people to punishing those trying to help them, even though it's clear that not enough resources are being dedicated to helping the homeless or the hungry,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, NLCHP, a non-profit in Washington, D.C.

A 2006 report on 67 cities by her group and the National Coalition for the Homeless, a nonpartisan, non-profit network, found an 18 percent increase since 2002 in laws prohibiting aggressive panhandling; a 12 percent jump in laws outlawing “passive” begging; a 14 percent rise in laws defining sitting or lying in public places as criminal acts.

Says Michael Stoops, the coalition's executive director in Washington, D.C.: “The idea is to drive the visible homeless out of downtown America, so that cities can attract developers, big money.”

What's wrong with attracting investment?

Nothing, Stoops says – unless it comes at the expense of decency. “It's a sorry state of affairs when you can feed the squirrels, the doves and pigeons at Lake Eola, but not a hungry guy down on his luck.”

Undeniably, a quarter century has done much to Orlando.

Once a sleepy town, it is today a city with a growing skyline, widening freeways, sidewalk cafes, and strip malls with neon signs in Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Japanese.

Its mayor, Buddy Dyer, ran for office in 2003 promising downtown revitalization, and revitalization is what locals are getting.

On streets around Lake Eola, where drug dealers and prostitutes once roamed, residential towers like “The Paramount,” “The Metropolitan at Lake Eola,” and the “The Vue at Lake Eola,” are now rising. In addition, the city is finalizing plans to renovate the downtown Citrus Bowl and build a new performing arts center and “Events Arena” by 2011 – at a cost of $1 billion.

Homelessness, in the view of Dyer and members of his staff, adversely affects public safety and economic development, and therefore must be addressed.

Ultimately, “it's a balancing act,” says Brie Turek, Dyer's spokesperson. “We need to balance the needs of our citizens and our businesses with the needs of the homeless.”

The large feedings were unbalancing constituents who lived near the parks, she says.

“We were receiving dozens of complaints about individuals sleeping in people's bushes, urinating on private properties. Some citizens reported finding homeless people doing drugs in their stairwells. There were reports of carjackings. There was even a stabbing.”

Alana Brenner, a city clerk who serves as the mayor's point person on the homeless problem, dismisses critics who say that Orlando's feeding ordinance discourages Good Samaritanism. “It's a restriction on the time, place and manner of feedings, nothing more.”

While the city would prefer that feedings be done through existing agencies such as the Salvation Army, it has also set up “an alternative location near downtown, on Sylvia Lane,” where, Brenner points out, “feedings can take place any day, any hour.”

The locale she referred to is roughly a 15-minute walk from City Hall, a sweep of blacktop where charities fed groups of destitute men and women several years ago. Shadowed by an overpass, the parking lot is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and flanked by an electrical power station and railroad tracks.

The city has provided portable toilets and picnic benches, but there is no running water to wash one's hands, says Jacqueline Dowd, a lawyer with the ACLU, which has also sued to overturn Orlando's feeding ordinance.

And the neighborhood, she says, is unsafe. “I've documented five cases of homeless people being beaten around there in the past year.”

One was August Felix, 54, who was found on March 26, severely beaten and lying motionless on a sidewalk one block from the Sylvia Lane feeding site. He died in the hospital a month later from the head injuries, police say.

Five boys, aged 15 and 16, were arrested on second-degree murder charges. “This was a case of bored kids – kids with time on their hands,” says Sgt. Richard King, who investigated the killing. “They targeted Mr. Felix because he was easy prey.”

The city acknowledges that it presently lacks resources to adequately provide basics for people with no place to live – bedspace in emergency shelters, for one thing. (“There is a capacity issue,” is how Brenner puts it.)

Permanent housing for those with very low incomes is also in short supply, despite Orlando's decade-long residential building boom. “A lot of apartment complexes have gone condo, which has removed affordable rental units from the local market,” says Brent Trotter, president of the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. “What's being built today, the average family in the service industry can't afford.”

The fastest-growing segment of central Florida's homeless population is families with children, the coalition says. It recently reported that shelter nights for children climbed 70 percent in 2005-2006, to 64,548.

Orlando has taken some steps to address this. In December, it sponsored “Project Homeless Connect,” an outreach program that paired 600 homeless people with 60 charities, service providers, religious groups and employers. Twenty-two individuals were placed in housing after the event.

Last fall, the city earmarked $860,000 to refurbish 299 apartments for low-income families and homeless people. It plans to spend $329,258 more this year to renovate the Health Care Center for the Homeless, and it will give $2 million to the Coalition for the Homeless, the Christian Service Center, the Harbor House, the United Way and the Center for Drug Free Living.

More outreach is needed, concedes Turek, the mayor's spokeswoman, but the city needs help from surrounding counties, the state and local businesses. “The city itself can't shoulder the burden of the homeless problem for the entire central Florida region,” she says.

At city council meetings, Brenner notes, “We heard almost no complaints from our own citizens about the ordinance. Sure, there are activists from other cities that are against it. But sometimes you want to ask them, 'Why aren't you feeding in your OWN community?'”

It's ideal apple-eating weather; coppery sunlight descends the purest of skies, and a warm breeze rustles the silvery moss in the live oaks above the 22 or so men and women waiting in a crooked line along the sidewalk.

Winter rewards the homeless who have persevered through Orlando's humid summer months, and now Suzanne Peters, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs, a group that feeds the homeless here once a week, wants to reward their patience.

It's nearly 5:15 p.m. when her tan, Chevy Blazer rolls up to the corner. The homeless stir, chatter, as Peters opens the hatch.

Out comes a serving table, vats of stew, eggplant, mashed potatoes and salad, ladles, stacks of paper plates, plastic cutlery, cartons of fruit juice, and boxes half-filled with apples, bananas, oranges, bagels and French rolls.

“Folks!” she calls out, “you can't sit on that wall. That's private property. The big, bad men will come and arrest you.” She motions to the curb. “You can stand on the sidewalk, or sit on the curb here. Sorry.”

Peters and her partners used to feed 75 to 150 homeless people at a time in Lake Eola Park, just a block north. Then, after the ordinance took effect, patrol cars, four at a time, would roll up, officers would step out and ask who was in charge.

“They'd tell us it was a 'no-feeding zone,'” says Brett Mason, a 19-year-old college student, who joined Food Not Bombs when it came to Orlando in January 2005.

The officers, he says, would “park nearby and watch us, in unmarked cars with tinted windows. Sometimes they'd take pictures of us, shoot video of us. Then they'd say, 'You have to get a permit to feed here,' and shoo us away.”

So the group retreated to this street corner and began feeding out of the back of members' cars. On occasion, to show defiance, Food Not Bombs fed in front of municipal buildings, even City Hall.

That's because the ordinance, says Ben Markeson, who belongs to the group, is based on a misguided premise.

City officials “think groups that share food with the homeless are attracting the homeless to downtown neighborhoods. But the homeless are already here. And they'll be here with or without the food.”

That opinion is shared by Paul Johnson, 34, and his fiancee, Ericka Holder, 26, of San Diego; Dave Whipkey, 37, of Kissimmee, Fla.; Carlos Gonzales, 64, of Orlando; Scott Phillips, 30, and his wife, Sherri, 39, of Lorraine, Ohio; Broderick Williams, 42, of Tampa; and, Derrick Wiley, 31, of Daytona Beach – all of whom have no place to live, all of whom are grateful for the hot meal they're getting.

Some days of the week, says Johnson, are “good food days” – meaning he and other homeless people can find three squares a day by hopping from church to church, charity to charity. “But there are lots of days – Mondays and Tuesdays are the toughest – when it's hard to get one meal.”

Wiley, a part-time cook at a downtown eatery, came to Orlando in 1998. What keeps him here? “It's a beautiful city. There are jobs. And there are people like this, who help others out of the goodness of their hearts.”

The feeding ordinance, however, was a shock. “They are trying to make downtown beautiful, which is cool. But, please, don't step on me, just 'cause I'm trying to make it.”

He smooths out his black T-shirt, looks down at his gray sweat pants, sky-blue socks and bedroom slippers. “I guess to them, I'm an eyesore ... They don't want to see me around the prestigious areas anymore.”

A police car crawls past. Wiley waits for it to turn the corner, then adds, “It's discrimination.”

So far, no one has been arrested in Orlando for feeding a hungry person. But the day it happens, says Sgt. Barbara Jones, a police spokeswoman, “we know we're going to look like the bad guys.”

Still, an ordinance is an ordinance, she says, and “our job is to enforce the law.”

By Todd Lewan
February 3, 2007

Friday, February 02, 2007

Homeless fight back with high tech: A tent city resident with a videocamera allows people around the world see police slashing tents.

Tina May grabbed a $30 disposable plastic videocamera when she saw police officers cutting down tents at the homeless camp she called home.

The police kept cutting. May kept filming.

Just a few hours later, May's video of the Jan. 19 raid went up on the Web site YouTube. It has logged over 13,000 views in a few weeks, been shared on blogs and Web sites like MySpace, and promoted St. Petersburg as a national poster child for cruelty against the homeless.

May's video shows how new media technologies allow even the most destitute draw attention to their causes. They don't need expensive digital equipment, just a cheap camera, a compelling image and the Internet.

Cassandra Van Buren, an assistant professor at the University of Utah who studies new media issues, said the inexpensive cost of digital cameras, coupled with easy-to-use sites such as YouTube, now mean that nearly everyone - even the homeless - can become a watchdog.

"What we're seeing now is that regular citizens have access to their own distributions through YouTube and the Web in general," Van Buren said. "That's the big shift you're seeing that enables this type of citizen countersurveillance."

May, just 14 years old when she first ran away from home, is a tiny 32-year-old woman who wears bulky jackets and fuzzy pink slippers with red hearts. She was arrested six days after she made the famous video, accused of pawning a stolen drill that she said was hers.

May is proud that she made the video.

"I didn't think it was right that they were slashing our tents," May said. "I'm glad I did it. People know all about us."

Since the initial raids, more homeless people have put up tents at two locations: On 15th Street near Fifth Avenue N and on 18th Street near Central Avenue. Mayor Rick Baker has since said the decision to cut the tents "was a mistake." Police officials - who initially said they took away the tents because of concerns with fire codes - say they don't anticipate any more raids.

Eric Rubin, an advocate for the homeless, said many people in the city's two tent cities now have disposable cell phones and videocameras. A MySpace page called homelesstentcitystpete offers regular updates and a list of needs water, toilet paper, portable shower.

"The reality is that a picture is worth a million words," Rubin said. "It's now being used as a form of protection as well."

May says an advocate for the homeless bought the plastic videocamera and gave it to her boyfriend, who gave it to her before he was arrested. She had just brought her stuff to the tent city at Fifth Avenue N and 15th Street and hadn't even put up her tent when she saw police pull up.

After shooting the video, May went to a CVS drugstore to get some DVDs of the video made for $51.99. She kept one DVD, and several other copies were passed around. One advocate for the homeless - May isn't sure who - uploaded the video to YouTube on a home computer hours after the raid. The credit reads: "Video by Tina May."

The views and outrage soon followed, as viewers registered their disgust: "Outrageous. ... This is a terrible act. ... This is atrocious."

The local music group Meyer Baron & the Spaghetti Band even wrote a song called Walk On By after watching it.

The song begins:

"In a city known as paradise

Under a picture postcard sky

folks in uniform came to haul

your a-- away

They sliced up your tent city

and drove you to the streets

Where nothing is a heavy price to pay."

by ABHI RAGHUNATHAN St. Petersburg Times

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