Don't feed the homeless Overwhelmed by street people, cities lay down the law

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Todd Lewan

Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — 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. But its spotless sidewalks 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 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.

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.

A week before Orlando’s ordinance took effect, Las Vegas criminalized giving food to even a single transient in any 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.

Already, the cities of Dallas, Fort Myers, Fla., Gainesville, Fla., Wilmington and Atlanta have laws restricting or 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.

“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, 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, nonprofit 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.”

A balancing act

On streets around Lake Eola, where drug dealers and prostitutes once roamed, residential towers like “The Paramount” and “The Metropolitan 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 arena by 2011 — at a cost of $1 billion.

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

“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, says the city has set up “an alternative location near downtown,” where “feedings can take place any day, any hour.”

The locale Brenner refers 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.

Jacqueline Dowd, a lawyer with the ACLU, which has also sued to overturn Orlando’s feeding ordinance, says the neighborhood 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 designated 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.

Permanent housing for those with very low incomes is also in short supply, despite Orlando’s decade-long residential building boom. 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.”

In December, Orlando sponsored “Project Homeless Connect,” an outreach program that placed 22 individuals in apartments. And 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 this year, it will give $2 million to established agencies and charities that care for the homeless.

More is needed, concedes Turek, the mayor’s spokeswoman, but “the city itself can’t shoulder the burden of the homeless problem for the entire central Florida region.”

‘No feeding’ zone

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 and chatter as Peters opens the hatch.

“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 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.”