Orlando's poor boxes 

And so the grand experiment begins. On Sept. 1, Orlando will become the first city in the nation to restrict beggars to small, demarcated areas on its downtown streets.

The City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Aug. 21 that enacts a solicitation-free zone bordered by Amelia Street on the north, Anderson Street on the south, Hughey Avenue on the west and Rosalind Avenue on the east.

The new zone also encompasses several blocks around the T.D. Waterhouse Centre and Lake Dot, as well as a three-block stretch of West Church Street.

Inside that area will be about two dozen "exempt zones," 3 feet by 15 feet, in which panhandlers -- and people who distribute bar fliers and other business literature -- can beg or disperse information.

Anyone doing so outside the "little poor boxes," as one speaker dubbed them, risks being arrested.

Those handing out political and religious information are exempt.

Only three among perhaps 25 speakers at the council meeting supported the zone. Most who opposed it -- an odd coalition of business people, community activists and the homeless -- did so because they didn't want the exempt areas near their businesses or homes.

Still, some said the measure would make second-class citizens of the destitute. "Not only would these zones violate basic constitutional and human rights, they will not accomplish anything constructive toward finding solutions to the issues caused by homelessness," said James McNeil, of the Orlando chapter of the Food Not Bombs organization.

Yet only one commissioner, Don Ammerman, spoke against it. "I think we're turning into a group that is going to be babysitting panhandlers," he said.

The man on the spot now is city attorney Scott Gabrielson, who concocted the no-solicitation zone with another city attorney, Ken Hebert. The two hit upon the idea after finding that no other American city had developed an effective panhandling ordinance capable of withstanding constitutional challenges.

Gabrielson said the problem was creating enough exempt zones to please a judge, should the city be taken to court.

"The constitutional stuff I feel comfortable with," he said after the meeting. "That may come back to haunt me."

Gabrielson is aware of his growing reputation as an oppressor of the homeless. "Some people think I'm this force of evil," he said. "That's certainly never been the image I've had of myself."

Indeed, if his experiment becomes a model for other cities, he could become nationally recognized for it. But most people -- at the council meeting, at least -- are betting against him. "The city attorney is like a mother with an ugly baby," Carol Sheaffer said to much laughter.

The question is, will his baby get any uglier?

More by William Dean Hinton


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