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Orlando is throwing money at the "aggressive panhandling" problem. But is it a boon for the public, or just a way to keep the chronically homeless out of sight? 

Begging pardon

Begging, even if for a charitable cause, makes people uncomfortable.

Whether we admit it or not, we're all guilty of taking a less than compassionate approach. It's why we stare through a stranger asking for some change or leftover food. It's why we find an excuse to look at our phones when we pass a crowd of down-and-outs. It's why we pretend to rush down the street at the sight of a canvasser's open palm, even if we really do want to save the endangered Florida salt marsh vole.

We're not alone in our discomfort. City officials, too, are unnerved by what seems like a burgeoning population of chronically homeless and transient individuals downtown. So much so, in fact, that the city has implemented something called the Downtown Ambassador program.

It's modeled after a now-defunct 2008 program of the same name, in which a roaming pack of city employees on Segways attempted to tidy up downtown. This time, the city has outsourced the hiring and training of the ambassadors to a company called Block by Block, which provides similar services in roughly 100 cities. The two-year pilot program has a third-year option and an annual budget of $725,000, paid for by the Community Redevelopment Agency, a city-run downtown improvement district funded by a tax on district property owners.

Today's 12 ambassadors – no longer mounted on Segways – officially hit the streets on Aug. 1. But what exactly are they here to do?

Though the ambassadors receive class D security guard training, they're not considered law enforcement – they don't carry weapons, not even pepper spray. Nor do they carry Narcan – the emergency nasal spray for opioid overdoses – as a paramedic would, even though the state offers legal immunity to anyone attempting to assist with a drug-related overdose. So initial assumptions that the ambassadors were there to assist the homeless aren't quite correct – they're more working around the homeless than for them.

According to the program's website, the ambassadors' goals are simple: provide safety escorts if requested; give directions, recommendations and other assistance; observe and report suspicious activity and aggressive panhandling; assist businesses and residents with questions or concerns; and help with security and information at special events. However, the program's intentions might not be so straightforward.

"We're the eyes and ears of the police," says an Orlando ambassador, who, citing the city's employee policy, asked that her name be withheld. Foremost, she adds, they're there to help curb aggressive panhandling.

So is the ambassador program really for the downtown population in its entirety? Or is it just a smokescreen between the transient population and the City Beautiful's more than 72 million annual visitors?

Thomas Chatmon, executive director of the Downtown Development Board, denies the ambassadors exist only to serve as a buffer.

"The launching of the program happens to coincide with a perceived increase in complaints about solicitation in the downtown area," says Chatmon. "[The ambassadors] are taught that they are not enforcement officials. They are additional eyes and ears for enforcement officials, but they're not enforcement officials themselves."

Chatmon adds: "This is Orlando, and we're known throughout the world for our world-class customer service. I think all would expect that level of customer service to be extended to our downtown corridor, and this is another means of achieving that."

But who's the customer? That's the tricky part. The city has to balance everyone's demands: the homeless, the transient, work commuters, tourists, downtown dwellers, business owners. And some customers are more vocal than others, making it crystal-clear to city officials how they feel. In a batch of emails acquired from the city through a public records request, Frank LaRocco, a resident at an apartment complex near Lake Eola, writes to the office of Mayor Buddy Dyer to express his concern with what "appears to be a rising problem in the cities [sic] central areas."

In the email, LaRocco notes how in recent months near Lake Eola he's seen "a large women [sic] dropping her pants, squatting and urinating in a very forceful way ... visible for all to see"; "an increasing amount of food trash"; "a person dragging a plastic bag" taken from a trashcan; "people regularly sleeping" in the park; and he says the vagrants asking for money "seem to be outnumbering the guests" there for recreation.

LaRocco also points out that the problem isn't just limited to Lake Eola Park. The 7-Eleven at the corner of Central Boulevard and Rosalind Avenue has become a gathering point for panhandlers, as has the Publix on Central, he says.

"It is reaching the point where I am getting uncomfortable in my own neighborhood, where a premium is paid to live," LaRocco writes. "Mr. Mayor, I have compassion for individuals who are homeless, hungry, struggle with mental illness and have no place to live. However, I do think we need to find better solutions than letting them congregate around Orlando's signature location."

Judging by public records detailing not just the Downtown Ambassadors program but various other initiatives, city officials agree – and they're throwing money at the problem.

Although the case had zilch to do with solicitation, most homeless advocates claim that the rise in so-called aggressive panhandling downtown can be traced to a single 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In 2005, Gilbert, Arizona, adopted an ordinance that imposed stricter limitations on signs displaying religious services than those that advertised "political" or "ideological" messages. As a result, after Good News Community Church placed between 15 and 20 temporary signs around town, Gilbert's sign code compliance manager cited the church for an ordinance violation. In return, the church filed a lawsuit in which it argued that the sign regulations breached its First Amendment rights.

A decade later, the Supreme Court not only ruled that the signs could stand in Gilbert, but set a new precedent across the country – and with it came a catch.

The court's decision applied to any local rules limiting certain types of speech, which strengthened the argument that it was unconstitutional for municipalities to prohibit people from begging for money in public spaces. Within two years, federal courts struck down panhandling laws across the country.

Around the same time, many cities' panhandling statutes were declared unconstitutional. A 2016 study of 187 cities, including Orlando, by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that 27 percent of the cities sampled had passed a type of broad ban on solicitation. Sixty-one percent of the sampled cities also prohibited panhandling in certain public spaces. Overall, citywide bans on panhandling increased by 43 percent since the center began tracking ordinances in the same sample group of cities in 2006.

The Reed ruling changed that. In July 2017, the City of Orlando fell in line with cities across the county in overturning solicitation bans, including a 2000 ordinance that limited locations for solicitation to roughly a dozen blue-painted boxes (like parking spaces) in downtown. It also overturned a 2007 ban on panhandling at night.

A few months later, in November 2017, Orlando officials passed a new ordinance that restricted panhandlers from soliciting from cars stopped at intersections and banned so-called aggressive panhandling: soliciting cash from anyone using an ATM was also deemed illegal; panhandling from "captive audiences," meaning people who are waiting in a public line; and panhandlers asking for money a second time if they'd already been turned down.

Even so, with the "blue boxes" eliminated, daily downtown commuters began complaining about increasingly prevalent panhandling. City officials worried about the effect that a growing homeless and transient population would have on downtown's aesthetics.

Enter the Downtown Ambassadors.

"And is that so bad?" asks Shelley Lauten, CEO for the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. "There is, I believe, an illogical fear of the homeless. But if you're a mom and you're coming for a festival and someone who is disheveled and dirty and smells like they've been drinking a little bit comes up to you and asks for money – what do you think that mom's reaction is?"

Having an ambassador around, she argues, is "better than having the police come in and arrest somebody, or [putting] them in a blue box."

According to city records, in the ambassador program's first week, Aug. 1 through Aug. 8, the program's employees reported 418 instances of "panhandling," though no cases of aggressive panhandling were reported. A similar trend continued in the second week, during which the ambassadors reported 344 cases of panhandling. Yet again, not a single case of aggressive panhandling is noted.

In the third week, however, the ambassadors appear to have begun paying closer attention to panhandlers, as the number of reported panhandling cases spiked to 840. Meanwhile, 37 instances of aggressive panhandling were noted.

The trend holds steady through the fourth, fifth and sixth weeks of the program, with the city's reports showing 738 cases of panhandling and 24 cases of aggressive panhandling reported in the fourth; 805 cases of panhandling and 42 cases of aggressive panhandling reported in the fifth; and 672 cases of panhandling and 14 cases of aggressive panhandling reported in the sixth week.

What changed? Were the ambassadors told to focus more scrutiny to the homeless population? Email correspondence between city officials, as provided through a public records request, suggests so.

In an Aug. 31 email, the ambassadors' operations manager, Mike Mitchell, writes to Dominique Greco, the city's nighttime economy project manager: "As discussed yesterday, attached is the map and direction of the 'walking path' we will take when conducting our Homeless counts. Effective immediately, those counts will be conducted daily (7 days each weekly [sic]) at 10am and 5pm respectively."

But Greco says no, it's not a refocusing of efforts, just a clarification of definitions. "Our numbers have been a little bit skewed, as we thought they'd be with the nature of a startup program and new employees," she says. "That number in particular" – the reports of aggressive panhandling – "has not been extremely defined."

Greco says the program is working on better definitions: "We are still working with staff and giving them more details on how and when to report" panhandling and aggressive panhandling, she says. "As you know, those two are sensitive. They're not as easy as, say, 'Oh, there's some graffiti on the wall, I need to report that.'"

In our interview, Greco didn't mention some of the other ways the city's Downtown Development Board is trying to get ahead of the problem. One solution, of course, has been the implementation of the ambassador program. As well, the city and the DDB are coordinating various direct marketing efforts.

In an Aug. 21 email with the subject line "Homeless Flyer," which Orlando Weekly acquired through a public records request, Greco writes to Mitchell about printed fliers they're distributing to local business and organizations downtown on their efforts to "reduce homeless and curb aggressive panhandling."

The flier acknowledges that "homelessness is one of the most complex issues facing [Orlando] and community across the country." It then goes on to note that in the last two and a half years, the city has managed to place "more than 330 chronically homeless in permanent supportive housing," though it doesn't say how many stayed there. It also states that, "despite [the] change to the city's ordinance, the Orlando Police Department continues to enforce aggressive solicitation laws and have made more than 400 arrests in the past six months."

In the Aug. 21 email, Greco writes to Mitchell: "Mike please print ONE copy and hang in office. We do not want ambassadors to hand these out BUT we are distributing them through other channels. They all go hand and hand [sic] :)"

But it doesn't end with fliers – the city has commissioned a media campaign with local marketing agency Prismatic, meant to educate the public on aggressive panhandling and create a way for those generous enough to donate to panhandlers to give without handing over actual cash. City spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser says the campaign is set to launch later this year; according to Lafser, thus far the city has spent just over $35,000, with more expenditures to come upon the campaign launch.

Between March 5 and April 22, Prismatic conducted a study of the relationship between Orlando's downtown audience with the homeless and panhandlers, according to city records. Respondents included different potential segments of the downtown population such as visitors, residents, professionals, business owners and community organizations serving the homeless and panhandlers, as well as the homeless and panhandling populations themselves.

According to their findings, 48 percent of those surveyed assume that panhandlers are homeless, and 26 percent stated that they have changed their path to avoid encountering panhandlers, though some claimed that their reason for doing so was because they were in a hurry and simply didn't want to engage. The study also found that 80 percent of the respondents "have never felt unsafe due to an aggressive panhandler."

In the study's sample of panhandlers, it found that 63 percent of those in Orlando's streets aren't actually from the Orlando area – and 41 percent of them found their way to the City Beautiful by way of Greyhound bus, like Shafi Ali, who told Orlando Weekly that's how he made his way from Washington, D.C., to Orlando about three months ago.

According to Prismatic's research, 65 percent of panhandlers are doing so because they're hungry. That's a point that Ali can attest to. "I panhandle for food," he says in a thick Middle Eastern accent. "That's all."

How does the homeless population feel about all this attention to the "downtown panhandling problem"?

"I've talked to them," says Daniel Bryant, referring to the ambassadors. "They're kind of a hit and a miss. They'll tell you that they're trying to help you, but they're out there to hinder you more than help you."

"It's like they're working for OPD," says Barbara Johnson, who's been chronically homeless ever since an abusive relationship left her on the streets eight years ago.

Bryant smiles at Johnson's comment. Most of his top front teeth are rotted, a symptom of a six-year stint on the streets. "There's a few of them out here who will really, truly, honestly listen to what you have to say," he says. "But most of them out here are just out here to collect a check, walk around, not doing anything."

He's not wrong.

In hours spent combing through downtown's streets for ambassadors, the Weekly observed a lackadaisical effort on the part of some program's employees.

On one occasion, when given the opportunity to strike up a conversation with a group of homeless men gathered under an awning on Pine Street, an ambassador simply kept his head down and walked right through the group, rather than engage, as aspects of the job are supposed to require. On several other occasions, ambassadors were seen leaning against a railing across from the Morgan & Morgan law office, as several homeless persons lingered across the street.

Can we blame them for not taking the initiative? According to the city, ambassadors are paid between $12 and $12.50 an hour, with team leaders making as much as $15 an hour. They provide customer service support – directions, safety escorts, and so on – but handling people dealing with mental illness may be above their pay grade.

"That's disappointing to hear," says Mitchell, referring to what the Weekly witnessed. "Our intent to be downtown is to engage daily with the individuals down there and hope to be able to afford them and refer them to the appropriate services." To be fair, after Orlando Weekly's conversation with Mitchell, we noticed a larger ambassador presence on the streets in the weeks that followed.

Of all the segments of the public the city is looking to serve – panhandlers, residents, commuters – downtown business owners seem the most satisfied with the city's attempts to address the panhandling issue.

"You've got to understand – this corridor is full of [homeless] people," says Jay Mangi, owner of the 7-Eleven on Pine Street. "It's one of the worst. And we're 24-7, so we've seen it all. But I think we need to give [the program] a chance, encourage it and see how it works."

Damon Jerden, an owner of Orange Avenue bars Dapper Duck and Downtown Pourhouse, agrees. But he doesn't believe the ambassador program is fully equipped to handle the problem.

"I think it's a step in a direction that we need to go, but I don't think that's the answer," Jerden says. "I don't know if this is even in [the people in City Hall's] wheelhouse. ... I'm sure they want to get the half-a-billion-dollar addition to the performing arts center finished. I'm sure they want to answer to Mr. and Mrs. Big Balls Rich Person who's donating money."

He thinks the program is a way for the city to signal that it's taking action, rather than doing anything substantive.

"[Orlando is] one of the fastest-growing cities in the country," Jerden says. "Why shouldn't we be putting our best foot forward? I'm not saying to throw these guys away, locked up in a cage or on the other side of I-4 in some big room and don't let them come out." But he is saying the solicitation of his customers is a problem that needs a more concrete solution.

As Lauten of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness says, it's a complicated issue – and there isn't an "either/or" solution.

"For me anyway, I think the best thing we can do is stop giving people money, so that they are challenged to find the food that they need – no one in downtown Orlando will go hungry," Lauten says. "On any day, there are seven service providers in the immediate area that can provide food, clothing, those kind of things."

She adds: "Allow the ambassadors to play that buffer."

That's one solution. Here's another: The city could begin treating the situation for what it is – a human problem – by spending on real solutions, not just Band-aids like the ambassador program and marketing campaigns, rather than just treating the surface.

Then again, begging makes people uncomfortable.

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