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

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