The underpass beneath the I-4/ State Road 408 intersection is lifeless Monday afternoon, Nov. 20. What was just a week ago one of Orlando's larger encampments of the poor and downtrodden is now empty, save for a couple of trash bags on top of the embankment. And that's by design. The Friday before, Nov. 17, the city rousted about 50 homeless people from this area, telling them to leave by afternoon or be arrested.
That Friday morning city crews arrived, escorted by police, and loaded the belongings of the homeless in their trucks. About seven people living under the bridge watched it happen. There wasn't much they could do. Most of the rest of the people who lived under there were already at work. They would discover that their possessions were gone later in the day.
By Friday afternoon the city had already disposed of the "trash." The city says it took items left in the rights-of-way — "a lot of stuff was left behind; it was disgusting, actually," says spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh — and discarded them because no one was around to claim them.
Homeless advocates tell a different version of the morning's events. "The cops show up and start taking stuff," says George Crossley, head of the ACLU of Central Florida. "They are grabbing stuff out of people's hands as they walk away with their belongings. Oh, am I pissed at this fascist city."
"The `city` employees were laughing as they took this stuff," adds Jackie Dowd, a former lawyer with the state attorney general's office who has recently formed Legal Advocacy at Work, a firm dedicated to helping the poor. She says city workers took not only trash, but also medications, papers, clothes, blankets and even books. They left a single Bible on the sidewalk. Suzanne Peters, also from Legal Advocacy at Work, picked it up and read aloud from it.
Activists see the city's actions as another example of the city's ongoing war against the homeless. The latest skirmish began this summer with an ordinance that forbade Orlando Food Not Bombs and other groups from feeding the homeless in Lake Eola Park. That law, sponsored by commissioner Patty Sheehan, came in response to complaints by nearby home and business owners that the feedings led to a deluge of panhandlers and undesirables, and some crime, in this well-to-do neighborhood.
But Sheehan's ordinance didn't come without a fierce response from Food Not Bombs, which staged protests and whose members wrote Sheehan and other commissioners nasty e-mails accusing them of kowtowing to the powerful and screwing the needy. The activists also made a spectacle of city council meetings, yelling at the city leaders and booing loudly when votes didn't go their way.
After the ordinance passed, the First Vagabonds Church of God, which ministers to the homeless, and other groups filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to declare the law unconstitutional. The city filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which is pending. (Dowd filed First Vagabond's response to the city's motion Nov. 20.)
The activists' legal argument boils down to this: The city cannot restrict a religious group, like First Vagabonds, from practicing their faith. Because their faith involves feeding the homeless, the city can't ban that. The city counters that it does provide a space for groups to host feedings, a small fenced-in area off Sylvia Lane, which, not coincidentally, abuts the underpass encampment city officials just shut down.
Since the groups' lawsuit, homeless advocates say the city has started cracking down. Police have ratcheted up their enforcement of panhandling laws and increased surveillance on Food Not Bombs' food sharing, both in the park and on downtown sidewalks. "That makes everyone uncomfortable," Dowd says.
The city says the activists have found a number of loopholes in the ordinance, and so it hasn't really been enforced. For instance, the ordinance says a group can only feed up to 25 people at a time. But the Friday after Thanksgiving, six different groups held a mass feeding in Lake Eola Park. They brought in 80 people, Dowd says, and seemed to once again skirt the law.
Allebaugh says there is no crackdown on the homeless and redirects questions about city policy to the National Project Homeless Connect Week, an event the city and Orange County will host together Dec. 8. That day, volunteers from government agencies and private groups will provide a one-stop shop for homeless-related services at the Downtown Recreation Center on West Livingston Street. It's exactly the kind of thing advocates have sought for years, except that it's only a one-day event and not something that happens year-round.
Two weeks ago, police began targeting the I-4/S.R. 408 camp. Scottie Phillips, a 30-year-old homeless vet who has been staying under the bridge with his fiancee, says the cops tried to kick him out on Tuesday, Nov. 14. "Tuesday morning officers were down here," Phillips says. "They grabbed the blanket off me and grabbed me by the ankle. When I asked `the officer` why, his attitude was, ‘This is not the fucking Red Roof Inn. This is the city of Orlando.'"
Crossley, the ACLU leader, says that many of those forced out from under the bridge were working that Friday, which means they didn't know their belongings were being taken. City workers didn't make any inventory of the confiscated things, which activists contend they were legally obligated to do.
Dowd notes two lawsuits — one in Fresno, Calif., and another in Pittsburgh — focused on the question of whether or not it's legal for a city to confiscate homeless people's belongings. The Pittsburgh case was settled in 2003, with the city agreeing not to destroy the homeless' personal effects. In Fresno, a judge issued a restraining order to bar the city from destroying confiscated items.
A few hours after Orlando police forced the homeless out from the camp, Dowd told Orlando Weekly that the activists were considering asking a federal judge to force the city to give the homeless people back their stuff. By that afternoon, however, the city had already trashed it, so an injunction wouldn't mean much.
Nonetheless, Dowd says she's still considering such a lawsuit. "I don't think it's a moot point," she says. "There's the possibility it could be done again."[email protected]