Orlando: Please Do Not Feed The Homeless

Chelsea England, lower right, of the group "Food Not Bombs," serves dinner to a homeless woman in downtown Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006. Under a new law, those feeding the hungry must obtain a permit. (AP Photo/Joanne Carole) AP Photo/Joanne Carole

At Lake Eola park, there is much beauty to behold: robust palms, beds of cheery begonias, a cascading lake fountain, clusters of friendly egrets and swans, an amphitheater named in honor of Walt Disney.

Then there are the signs.

DO NOT LIE OR OTHERWISE BE IN A HORIZONTAL POSITION ON A PARK BENCH ... DO NOT SLEEP OR REMAIN IN ANY BUSHES, SHRUBS OR FOLIAGE ... per city code sec. 18A.09 (a) and (o).

Visit the park's restrooms, and you'll find this sign on the wall above the hand dryers:

BATHING AND/OR SHAVING IN RESTROOM IS PROHIBITED ... per city code 18A.09 (p) ... LAUNDERING CLOTHES IN LAKE EOLA PARK IS NOT PERMITTED.

Since joggers and dog walkers tend not to snooze in flower beds, and because employees at the glittering office towers around Lake Eola don't scrub laundry in park sinks, it's clear, says Monique Vargas, at whom the notices are targeted.

"They're talking to us, to the homeless," says Vargas, 28, who says she has lived on the streets, in parks or under overpasses, since age 16. "It's a way of saying, 'Your kind isn't wanted in our city.'"

Orlando, population 200,000, works hard to conjure the image of a true-life Pleasantville. But its spotless sidewalks and twinkling skyline belie a real city with real maladies — most notably, a surging homeless population that authorities are struggling to control.

After a law that banned panhandling was struck down by the courts, the city tried to discourage aggressive beggars by obliging them to carry ID cards, and later by confining them to 3-by-15-foot "panhandling zones" painted in blue on sidewalks downtown.

Despite these laws, the number of people living on the streets of the metro area swelled, from roughly 5,000 in 1999 to an estimated 8,500 today, dwarfing the city's shelter capacity for 2,000 people.

So in July, the city commission tried a "supply-side" approach: It passed an ordinance regulating the feeding of large groups of people in Orlando's downtown parks.

Those who wished to feed more than 25 hungry individuals at parks within a 2-mile radius of City Hall could do so, but only if they obtained a "Large Group Feeding Permit" from the parks department — and no one would be granted more than two feeding permits a year.

For the first time anyone in Orlando could remember, not only would panhandlers find themselves in the crosshairs of the law, but so would those trying to help them.




A week before Orlando's ordinance took effect, Las Vegas criminalized giving food to even a single transient in any city park.

In August, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit challenging the Las Vegas ban, saying it violated constitutional protections of free speech, right to assembly and right to practice one's religion. A federal court in Nevada has prohibited the city from enforcing the ordinance until a final ruling is issued.

Advocates for the homeless feared it wouldn't be long before other cities passed similar laws.

Already, the cities of Dallas, Fort Myers, Fla., Gainesville, Fla., Wilmington, N.C., and Atlanta have laws restricting or outright prohibiting the feeding of the homeless. In Fairfax County, Va., homemade meals and meals made in church kitchens may not be distributed to the homeless unless first approved by the county.

  • Amy Clark

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