Thursday, October 11, 2007

Man who feeds homeless cleared

In a case watched closely by homeless advocates around the country, Orlando jurors Tuesday acquitted 22-year-old Eric Montanez of violating the city's controversial ban on large group feedings in public parks.

Montanez, who faced up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for the misdemeanor, said he never lost faith during his two-day trial, believing the jury "would not convict a person for feeding the homeless."

Immediately after the verdict, Orange County Judge Steve Jewett praised Montanez for wanting to help those less fortunate but cautioned him that "you do need to follow the law."

But outside the courtroom, Montanez vowed to continue his group's weekly feedings at Lake Eola and stuck with his contention that volunteers already were in compliance with the 2006 ordinance, which prohibits feedings of 25 or more people in city parks without a permit. The law also limits each group to two permits per park per year.

Although the feedings regularly attract more than 50 people -- some said more than 100 -- volunteers have said there are several groups sponsoring the feedings and that no one group is feeding more than 24 people at a time. Much of the testimony focused on what appeared to be varying interpretations of the law.

City prosecutor Kimberly Laskoff had no comment on the verdict, but Orlando Police Department spokeswoman Barbara Jones issued a statement Tuesday evening saying: "It appears the jury felt the defendant did not violate the city ordinance. That said, the city will continue to enforce this ordinance, as it is a vehicle for the city to balance the needs and safety of residents visiting the park and those who desire to feed in the park."

The April 4 arrest was the city's first and only enforcement of the ordinance so far.

Across the country, several major cities have passed laws aimed at keeping the homeless out of upscale neighborhoods or tourist destinations -- a trend some call "the criminalization of homelessness."

According to a report by the nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, tactics have included bans or restrictions on panhandling, sleeping in public and loitering, as well as destruction of homeless camps and prohibitions of public feedings.

Dallas, for instance, passed a law effective September 2005 that penalized charities, churches and other organizations that serve food to the needy outside certain designated city areas. Violators can be fined up to $2,000.

"It does seem to be a new trend," said Orlando attorney Jacquelyn Dowd, who represented Montanez and whose nonprofit law firm, Legal Advocacy at Work, often handles cases for those with no permanent address. "Instead of going after the homeless, they're going after people who serve the homeless."

During the trial, though, Laskoff said the ordinance -- while perhaps not "popular" -- was never aimed specifically at the homeless. Instead, she said, it was an effort to control any large-scale feeding for reasons of safety, both to those eating and to others. She called Montanez's volunteerism "a noble gesture" but said he understood the law and ignored it anyway.

"This is a young man who wants to prove his point," Laskoff told jurors in her closing arguments. "He wants to do what he wants, where he wants and how he wants. . . . The defendant himself told you he fed more than 30 people on that single day" of his arrest.

But other testimony showed there was occasional confusion over the law. One week Montanez and fellow members of Orlando Food Not Bombs, which began the weekly Lake Eola feedings in 2004, were told they were in compliance, only to be told the next week they were not. That scene was captured in a video played for the jury.

Whether Orlando police make further arrests or not, the ordinance still faces a constitutional challenge by the Central Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in federal court. That trial is not set until summer 2008. Montanez and the First Vagabonds Church of God -- a ministry run by a formerly homeless man -- are among the plaintiffs in the case.

Meanwhile, Montanez wasted no time in returning to his cause. After speaking to the media, he went immediately to Lake Eola to join an ongoing "Ladle-Fest" held in support of him -- three days of thrice-daily hot meals for the hungry.

But he added, "I'm going to try to avoid getting arrested again."

by Kate Santich
Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer

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