Wednesday, June 21, 2006
City moves to limit mass meals for homeless
Rich Mckay | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted June 20, 2006
If charitable groups want to feed the homeless in Orlando, they'll have to find someplace other than Lake Eola Park -- or any city park, for that matter -- to do it.
The City Council effectively banned serving food to homeless people in parks, after a 3 1/2-hour public session Monday that included testimony from more than two dozen homeless activists as well as crime-weary residents and business owners who called for action.
The meeting was preceded by a protest of about a dozen homeless people and their supporters in front of City Hall.
But they had less sway than the residents and business owners who complained that charitable groups are using Lake Eola Park, the centerpiece of downtown Orlando, as a soup kitchen. Other complaints were that the homeless are aggressively panhandling in and around the park, breaking into cars and causing other problems, including using bushes as toilets.
"Feeding the homeless is a good thing, a civic duty," downtown businessman Robin Stotter said. "But it needs to be done in the right place."
The ordinance as passed on first reading Monday was modified from an original proposal and now encompasses city property, although the intent is parks. It states that no one can feed groups of 15 or more people without a one-time-use permit, and such permits would be issued no more than twice a year to one person, and the city would dictate the location of the group feeding.
The decision faces likely legal action from the Central Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and outright defiance from at least one group that is feeding the homeless in Lake Eola Park.
"If they want war, they've got one," said Eric Montanez, 20, a volunteer with the charity Orlando Food Not Bombs. "This is not over. Believe me."
Montanez, while not speaking officially for the group, said that he and others have no intention of not feeding the hungry in a public park.
The group has at least a few weeks of breathing space. The ordinance must go before the City Council for a second vote before it becomes law. That hearing is expected in July.
"This hasn't been easy," said Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who drafted the ordinance after receiving numerous complaints from residents and business owners.
"What's heartbreaking is that I do support delivering services to the people who need them," she said.
The point of the ordinance, Sheehan said, isn't to hinder charitable work, but to take control of unregulated events and direct them to proper venues.
"I don't think it's fair to be told that we don't have a say" in how the parks are used, Sheehan said.
While the ordinance is poised to pass on its second vote, the City Council wasn't unanimous in its support. Commissioners Sam Ings and Robert Stuart voted against it.
Ings said the city should step up and help the homeless, not create obstacles.
"I encourage that we stop this now," said Stuart, executive director of the Christian Service Center. "This is bad city policy."
However, he said he would vote for it on the second reading, but he hopes to add an amendment to sunset the ordinance in a year, meaning it would come up for vote again.
Roberto Dijols, 49, who said he is homeless and was protesting outside City Hall before the hearing, asked how a group of homeless people eating in the park could be treated differently from a big family holding a picnic.
"It's not a crime to be poor, to be hungry," he said. "Well, maybe it is."