In the vacant expanse of Church Street Station, a wheelchair-bound veteran who refers to himself as “Sarge” bakes in the sun on the sidewalk, a plastic cup clutched in front of him.
“I just do this for food. I only get $10 in food stamps,” Sarge says. “I served this country!”
By being on the street and asking for money, Sarge is already pushing his luck with the city of Orlando, which confines such activities to “blue boxes,” specific areas delineated by blue paint where cash solicitation is allowed. Now he will find his actions further restricted. A new amendment to the city’s panhandling ordinance – Chapter 43 of the city code – passed on second reading Sept. 17 forbidding panhandling from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily.
And it is only the latest in a long history of city attempts to curtail panhandling in Orlando, efforts that landed the city on the National Coalition for the Homeless’ list of the 20 meanest cities in America in 2003.
Orlando’s war on panhandling dates to the 1990s when an initial ban – one that was similar to those being challenged in court in other cities – was superseded by a 1997 law requiring panhandlers to attain permits.
In 2000 the city came up with the blue boxes: 35 three-by-15 spots, outlined in blue, designated as downtown panhandling zones. And last year, the city made national news with a feeding ordinance designed to restrict homeless gatherings in public areas.
The group-feeding ordinance is facing legal challenges, and most of the blue boxes are no longer visible. A stroll along the downtown stretch of Orange Avenue reveals streaks of paint on the sidewalk – many of them blue – to mark irrigation, power and construction projects, but no designated panhandling zones.
“This is one here,” says Sarge, pointing to a barely there blue border on Church Street, within which he sits. “There’s one down there under the bridge, there’s one in front of the courthouse by the Lymmo pick-up and one behind there near the parking garage.”
But the blue-box ordinance is still in effect, even if you can’t find one.
“There were originally 35 of those blue boxes, and a lot of those are now in construction zones,” says Orlando Police Department Sgt. Russ Waters. “And if they’re in construction zones, then the boxes are pretty much gone because they’ve torn up all of the sidewalks. And some of the paint has faded. However, we are still enforcing that they have to be in the blue box.” Waters clarifies that if someone is asking for money where a box once was, but the lines are no longer visible, officers will not penalize the panhandler.
“As a result of the construction (both building and transportation improvements) some of the blue boxes have been impacted,” says city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh in an e-mail. “In addition, the `Downtown Development Board` is aware that some of the blue boxes have faded. Now that construction is beginning to level out, the DDB is in the process of inventorying the blue boxes and surveying any impacts. In the coming weeks, they will be meeting to refresh the blue boxes.”
The new law piggybacks on the blue boxes with a proposed nighttime ban on begging, even in designated zones. Once again, the goal is to keep downtown user-friendly by diminishing “aggressive” panhandling behavior. The new law is rooted in citizen complaints. Orlando enlists an undercover “downtown transient detail” to catch offenders that has resulted in 287 arrests since December 2005 (eight of them over 22 hours of patrolling this August). The punishment for panhandlers can be severe as a $500 fine and/or 60 days in jail, but typically isn’t.
“The fine is whatever the court determines at the time, but a lot of times they don’t necessarily get anything other than time served, realistically, because they don’t have any money,” says Waters. “It’s not a ticket, it’s a second-degree misdemeanor, because it’s an ordinance and they violated the ordinance.”
Waters says that after dark is when the panhandlers become more aggressive, because that’s when there are more people downtown drinking.
“I mean, a lot of people are fearful of transients,” he says.
That includes members of city council. At the Sept. 10 meeting, council members Patty Sheehan and Sam Ings couched their support of the new ban in terms of frightening personal encounters with beggars.
“We get called mean because we don’t want people chased and we don’t want people harassed,” said Sheehan.
Commissioners added that the city provides adequate social services downtown to address the needs of the homeless.
Commissioner Robert Stuart, the only council member to vote against the new ordinance, suggests that this is a bad ordinance at the wrong time. He believes that ordinances already on the books are enough to protect citizens from aggressive panhandling.
Now that the new law has passed, the city can almost certainly count on a challenge.
“I think that the city of Orlando is trying to be on the cutting edge of how far it can push it as far as the restricting of the homeless,” says Glenn Katon, director of the central region for the ACLU. “I think it’s continuing that.”
Katon suspects that there may be some holes in the city’s ordinance; notably the poorly marked blue-box zones.
But the bigger issue may be free speech.
“The government cannot limit speech simply because it finds it unpleasant – that’s unconstitutional,” said Rosalind Matos, a South Florida staff attorney for the ACLU, in a June press release regarding the group’s challenge of a Miami Beach ordinance.
“What surprises me about the whole thing is that with all of the uproar and controversy that’s likely to result from this, why is the city so intent on pushing the envelope?” says Katon. “Why not just go with some normal restrictions? They’re willing to take on the potential challenges in court and protests and all that; is it really a worthwhile trade-off? This goes beyond the constitutional component of it. But that’s the part that I find so stupid, frankly.”
Katon says the city’s contention that it already provides adequate services for the homeless downtown is beside the point.
“If the services that they’re offering downtown are so adequate, why are people out panhandling?” he says. “I mean, is it because they like to be out in the heat or all their needs are met by these services? To me, that’s great if they are providing services. That’s a nice step. … If it’s constitutionally permissible, it’s constitutionally permissible regardless of whether you’re giving them vouchers to the Hilton. People have a right to be out there and say, ‘I’m hungry, could you spare some change?’ If that doesn’t comport with their vision of the ‘City Beautiful,’ well, that’s too bad.”[email protected]