Every day, the Christian Service Center's Daily Bread kitchen feeds lunch to 325 homeless men. The center also provides emergency assistance to low-income families (for instance, money to fix a car). It gives food and clothing to those who have none and offers short-term shelter. This year, the CSC will help more than 5,000 people.
A few blocks east is the Orlando Union Rescue Mission's shelter on West Central Boulevard. It houses and feeds about 120 men a night and offers them a chance to get back on their feet. A block north on Parramore Avenue is the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. The Men's Pavilion provides emergency shelter for about 300 chronically homeless men every night, and other facilities house 400 men, women and children. The Coalition also serves 360,000 hot meals a year.
Follow Parramore Avenue to West Colonial Drive and hang a right and you'll run into the Salvation Army complex, which encompasses nearly an entire city block. The Salvation Army shelters about 200 homeless men, women and children every night, along with some 300 low-income seniors who live in its two high-rise towers.
Together these organizations shelter more than 1,500 people every day. Two decades ago, Orlando embraced these agencies. Things have changed.
In 2003, the National Coalition for the Homeless declared Orlando the "ninth meanest city" in the country, based on laws that restricted where the homeless could go and where they could be fed. In the late 1990s, the Hood administration and newly elected city commissioner Daisy Lynum targeted this nexus of social services for elimination.
All of these groups are located in Parramore, which was fine when the neighborhood was a poor, mostly black slum. But as the city convened task force after task force trying to figure out how to remedy Parramore's problems, it found a new target to blame: social service groups, especially the Coalition.
Orlando wants the Coalition out of Parramore, but it doesn't know where to put it. The Coalition refuses to move far from downtown, and because it owns its own property, the city can't force it out. But the city has barred social service agencies from expanding or renovating in Parramore.
This crackdown originated in 1998, when Covenant House Florida tried to buy the Syrian Lebanese American Club on Mills Avenue and turn it into a shelter for runaway teens. The Colonialtown neighborhood revolted, and the city council took note. In October 1998, it passed a 120-day moratorium on adding new beds for the homeless in city limits.
In December 1998, the city amended its future land use policy to read: "The location of new homeless facilities and social service agencies in the Parramore Heritage area shall be prohibited." In April 1999, the council unanimously voted to change zoning laws to prevent social services from popping up in residential neighborhoods. Later that year, the city also banned existing social services from expanding.
The first real test of the new law came in August 2001, when the Health Care Center for the Homeless announced plans to buy a $285,000 lot at the corner of Westmoreland Drive and Church Street and build a two-story facility. The location would have put the HCCH next to the Orange County Medical Clinic.
The HCCH officials argued that it was a medical center, not a social service organization, so the city's rules shouldn't apply. Daisy Lynum said the HCCH was exploiting a loophole. The two sides battled for a year, but Lynum prevailed when the HCCH bought a lot outside Parramore's boundaries.
After that, the city amended its future land use plan again. As of 2002, the city's new policy declared: "The city of Orlando has determined that the over-concentration of social service uses in the Parramore Heritage Renovation Area has had a negative impact on the area's stability and prosperity. … Emergency shelters, treatment and recovery facilities, residential social service facilities and social service uses shall not be established, expanded or relocated within the Parramore Heritage Renovation Area."
It also defined what a social service is: "The use exists to advance human welfare by solely or primarily providing health care, food, clothing and/or human services to individuals on-site for no fee or a below-market fee, the use is nonprofit in nature, and the use receives the majority of its funding from donations, grants, and/or government programs."
As the ban enters its seventh year, its effects are becoming increasingly pronounced.
"A lot of it goes with the economy," says Robert Stuart, head of the Christian Service Center and a candidate for city council in District 3. "We're seeing an increase on a regular basis." In fact, he says, there are now more people coming to Daily Bread than any time in the decade he's worked there.
Other social service groups concur. The Salvation Army women and children's shelter has been at capacity for eight months now; it turns away a half-dozen people a week because there is no room. The Orlando Union shelter also doesn't have enough beds. The Coalition has for years talked about its need to remodel and expand.
"The work we do here is stagnant," Stuart says. "We can't expand to meet the need."
"The reality is, all over the country the number of people in the homeless condition continues to grow," adds Robert Brown, CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless. "It will grow significantly as far as the eye can see. It's near crisis right now. It will certainly get there."
City law doesn't just prevent the groups from adding beds; it also bans renovations. Stuart wants to build locker rooms with showers for men to use before job interviews. He can't. The Orlando Union wants to remodel its facility into something that better blends with the neighborhood. It's not allowed. The Salvation Army recently bought property off South Orange Blossom Trail in unincorporated Orange County; it wanted to find more space to build housing units for families, but the city won't let it happen in Parramore.
Brown voiced his frustration in an August 2005 letter to Mayor Buddy Dyer. "If the city and the Coalition cannot find a mutually and politically acceptable place to move, the Coalition will continue to focus its energies on helping as many people as it can at our present location. If this occurs, we will ask the city council to remove the so-called 'ban' prohibiting us from remodeling our own property. If the council refuses, we will be forced to explore whether it is legally enforceable."
That's not an academic question. "Bob [Brown] and I are both convinced it's not constitutional," Stuart says. Brown declined to discuss potential legal avenues because he doesn't want to tip his hand and he doesn't want the city to think he's playing hardball. But he does mention Pottinger v. Miami, a 1988 class-action lawsuit the ACLU filed on behalf of 5,000 homeless people. The lawsuit alleged that Miami's crackdown on the homeless was unconstitutional because police were arresting people for sleeping and bathing in public, even though the city didn't have enough shelter space.
In 1992, a federal judge forced Miami to adequately fund its homeless services before it could arrest people. In 1998, the ACLU and Miami reached a $1.5 million settlement $600,000 for the wronged homeless, $900,000 for the lawyers and the city agreed not to criminalize homelessness. More importantly, the city created a dedicated funding source to provide for homeless services via a tax on high-end restaurants. Miami is now considered a national model.
The Pottinger case would only apply here if homeless people were left without anywhere to go. For a lawsuit based on Pottinger to prevail, says ACLU attorney Ben Waxman, social service agencies would have to demonstrate that the city's restrictions have forced them to turn the homeless away, and that the homeless don't have any "reasonable alternatives" to feeding and sheltering themselves in public.
Orlando's not there … yet.
"We're pretty close here," says Jackie Dowd, the acting director of clinical programs at the Florida A&M law school. (Before taking a job at FAMU, Dowd was the managing partner of Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, which represents poor people.)
Orlando's policy isn't unique. According to a 1997 survey of shelter providers by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 69 percent of local governments tried to influence where its social services could be located, most in response to neighborhood fears of increased crime and decreased property values.
The city has legitimate reasons for thinking that booting the homeless will boost Parramore. On the streets next to the Coalition or Christian Service Center any given afternoon, the down-and-out gather, some smoking cigarettes, others waiting for a meal. Accurately or not, that adds to the perception that Parramore is a dangerous place, and that can't help lure businesses to a neighborhood that has been overlooked since the end of segregation.
Maybe Parramore would do better if the Coalition left. But then firstname.lastname@example.org
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.