Sidewalk talk gets serious 

Anyone lying or sitting on downtown sidewalks could soon be arrested if the Orlando City Council passes an ordinance prompted by business owners complaining about the large number of homeless people who have set up camp in the city's 35 panhandling zones.

The panhandling zones, often called blue boxes because of the color the city chose to paint them, were initiated two years ago as a response to what city leaders called aggressive panhandling in the downtown area.

Since then, panhandlers have chosen to make the blue boxes their own personal campgrounds, business leaders say.

City Attorney Scott Gabrielson said the no-sitting ordinance will be modeled after a similar ordinance enacted by Seattle in 1993. That ordinance, which prohibits sitting or lying between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. in downtown Seattle, has survived several court challenges, Gabrielson said.

Orlando's ordinance will likely exempt people who use wheelchairs, experience a medical emergency or attend political rallies. A policeman must warn a person before an arrest can be made.

Gabrielson, who oversaw passage of the blue-box ordinance two years ago, says the no-sitting ordinance is not an attack on the homeless. He points out that charities seeking hand-out donations must also use the panhandle-free zones. "I don't know why the existence of an ordinance would drive anybody out of downtown," he says. "People are going to perceive what they want. But we're trying to balance the rights of everyone."

He adds, "There are lot of places to sit other than on a sidewalk."

Yet the no-sitting ordinance will likely create its own set of problems. Enforce-ment will be a nightmare, mostly because it is difficult to punish the homeless, who live by their own sets of rules.

"What are you going to do, jail them?" asks former City Commissioner Bruce Gordy, who provides volunteer dental service at a free Parramore health clinic. "You don't have enough room for them. Are you going to fine them? They don't have any money. Are you going to take them to the city limits and leave them to find their way back? There's no solution I can see other than to do something that is humane."

Kelly Caruso, founder of the self-help agency The Ripple Effect, says the ordinance is further proof that the city is treating the symptom, not the problem.

"I don't like being asked for a quarter but the fact that I don't like it doesn't mean I close my eyes to it," she says. "The homeless problem is not going to go away that way."

Caruso says business owners who have problems with the homeless should try a different approach: communication. She advises telling homeless squatters, "Please don't loiter around here. Move along. The campsite's at KOA."

But Jennifer Tuck, a body piercing artist at the downtown tattoo shop Inkredible Ink, says the homeless often don't listen to her admonitions. Last Christmas, she was spat on and thrown into the street by a homeless man who became enraged after Tuck refused to give him a quarter. Tuck, all of 98 pounds, sustained a broken right elbow in the fall, costing her $2,000 in medical expenses.

She says the blue boxes exacerbate the homeless problem -- not because vagrants are sleeping or sitting, but because they congregate in an area, become intoxicated on beer, weed or crack, then harass her and her customers. The police, meanwhile, haven't proved helpful.

"The police ride right by on their bikes," she says. "They get tired of the phone calls."

The homeless, already bogged down with mental health and substance-abuse problems, see the no-sitting ordinance as yet another obstacle to overcome. James Mello, a homeless man rolling a cigarette as he sat on a damp downtown sidewalk earlier this week, says he won't abide by the ordinance, should it be enacted. He says he has a bad back and no cartilage in one of his knees.

"I'm going to pop out a chair," Mello says, "and sit wherever I want to."


More by William Dean Hinton


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