City: Don't feed the homeless

It's early Saturday morning and already the dog-walkers and joggers are pacing themselves around the rim of Lake Eola.

Years ago, the 23-acre park was home -- literally -- to a large number of vagrants and drifters who slept under azalea bushes that have since been cut down. Today, you're more likely to find the homeless sitting quietly in a shaded, brick-lined area in the park's southeast corner. Officials have spiffed up the park's appearance by erecting busts of the world's great freedom fighters, like Mohandas Gandhi, whose life, according to an epitaph on his statue, was devoted "to the dignity and uplift of the downtrodden."

Orlando's downtrodden come to this section of the park each Saturday because the west-side soup kitchens are closed weekends. Groups like The Ripple Effect, a 12-year-old nonprofit dedicated to helping the homeless assimilate into mainstream society, pick up the slack by serving free baloney sandwiches.

It is ironic, in a way, that the homeless receive a handout in this particular section of the park. City officials have been remarkably successful in spending millions of dollars to subsidize businesses along nearby Central Avenue, turning it into one of Orlando's wealthiest and trendiest areas.

Minutes before 8 a.m., several cars pull up and volunteers begin unloading boxes of bananas, baloney, bread, candy and other donated food. A line of maybe 100 people forms, the majority of whom are white, middle-age males. They shuffle through a buffet line, putting food in plastic grocery bags. Most of them are so hungry that they eat their sandwich before reaching the end of the buffet.

In the hour it takes The Ripple Effect volunteers to feed the hungry, nothing untoward occurs. Two men quarrel over some bananas, but the problem is quickly diffused. Nonetheless Richard Levey, Orlando's chief administrative officer, and Frank Billingsley, executive director of the Downtown Development Board, would like The Ripple Effect, and a church group serving free meals at noon, to stop feeding the homeless in Lake Eola.

Neighbors and business owners adjacent to this corner of the park have complained that the meals attract the homeless, who sometimes use the bathroom outdoors or ask passersby for spare change. "I have been getting lots of calls, even from some of the more liberal-minded folks," says Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who is also a member of The Ripple Effect's board of directors. "There's a concern that with a concentration of people in the park, it's hard for the cops to keep an eye on what's going on."

On July 29, city officials met with three members of The Ripple Effect to discuss another location for the buffet. One problem: The Ripple Effect doesn't want to move. "Why shouldn't the homeless be able to get food here?" says Kelly Caruso, the group's founder. "We're not doing anything wrong. We're sharing food. That's what you do in a park."

The city's official position is that banning the buffet is premature. Still, the Orlando council has already passed two laws targeting the homeless population: mandating panhandling "safe zones" two years ago, and an ordinance against sitting or lying on sidewalks last week.

Those two ordinances are probably constitutional, though they haven't yet been challenged in court.

In writing a law prohibiting the park meals, the city would be entering an area that will be difficult to legally defend. Earlier this summer, a Fort Lauderdale homeless advocate named Arnold Abbott won a court case allowing his Wednesday-afternoon free buffet to continue on Fort Lauderdale Beach. Fort Lauderdale's city manager had threatened Abbott with arrest for serving the meals. Abbott filed an injunction, and the courts agreed that the city had violated the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says, in essence, that government cannot burden religious expression without having a good reason.

John David, Abbott's pro bono attorney, said The Ripple Effect and other free-food groups can likely prevail under the Abbott ruling. "If [the groups] are serving meals on a religious basis, I don't think the city can prohibit it," he says. Then again, as David points out, many churches and nonprofits probably don't have the willpower or financial means to take on City Hall. "This is definitely a bullying type of thing," he says.

Bullying the helpless is nothing new in this town, and the tendency is to blame city officials. But homelessness is a regional problem, and as Mayor Glenda Hood rightly points out, the region is doing little to alleviate the burden Orlando absorbs when the homeless congregate downtown.

Orlando, for example, allocated nearly $1 million for homeless programs this fiscal year. Orange County government, on the other hand, allocated $660,000 for the county's 4,500 homeless people, many of whom can be found in Orlando shelters. By comparison, Miami-Dade, which has 7,000 homeless, generated $6.5 million for the homeless this year through a restaurant tax passed in 1993.

Government officials typically balk at being too progressive on homeless programs for fear of drawing more homeless to an area. But that thinking is clearly wrongheaded.

Broward County, which has one of the best homeless initiatives in the country (according to the National Coalition for the Homeless), has seen its homeless population hover around 7,000 since 1998 -- though Broward officials have been successful in moving more of them into transitional housing. "Most of our homeless have been here for years," says Steve Werthman, Broward County's homeless director. "That's true for cities across the country."

That's true as well for the homeless in Lake Eola Park. Bryan Shaw is a 43-year-old unemployed cook. Shaw has worked for I-Drive restaurants for more than a decade. Now he lives on one meal a day, if he can find it.

"If you don't have any money," he shrugs, "you're not going to eat."

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