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Fed up

How Orlando's homeless-service agencies have failed to solve the problem

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Donovan might have to reconsider his formula. It was 14 years ago that the city passed an ordinance which made Orlando the first in the nation to require that panhandlers carry a permit. That law proved ineffective and was thrown out by the city in 2000, but not without a replacement measure: On Sept. 1 of that year, police began checking compliance with “blue boxes” that mark the only places in downtown where panhandling is legal. (Since that day, there have been more than 2,674 panhandling arrests in the Orlando Police Department’s jurisdiction.) And as the city’s prestige has grown over the last decade, so has its reputation for singling out the homeless. Award-winning Associated Press reporter Todd Lewan visited Orlando and wrote a lengthy article published in February 2007 concerning the city’s fraught relationship with the homeless, taking note of signs at Lake Eola Park, of which this is the most (in)famous: “Do not lie or otherwise be in a horizontal position on a park bench.”

In 2009, Orlando received the dubious honor of being named the third “meanest city” in America by the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty. “Instead of using resources to enforce the law, [the city] should be devoting those resources to helping to end homelessness,” says Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights program director at the nonprofit. “One could see that the city, really, is interested in moving homeless people out of sight.”

Last year at Lake Eola Park, police cited 159 homeless people for trespassing. Some of the orders have questionable justifications: on June 11 a homeless man was cited for “Harassing turtle,” on Aug. 24, two were barred from the park for “Throwing stones in lake,” and on Christmas Eve, a homeless man was barred from the park indefinitely for “Trashing the restroom.” In addition, 14 were trespassed last year because they “Violated park rules,” though the specific rules are not mentioned; for 20 others, “Requested to leave by ranger” is the only explanation given.

A look at the city’s legal briefing against Orlando Food Not Bombs in last year’s filing with the Eleventh District Court over the city’s large group feeding ordinance offers a surprisingly candid look at how the city views the downtown homeless. “The revitalization of downtown Orlando is a priority for the city,” the brief states. “The city of Orlando recognizes that a historic impediment to downtown development is an over-concentration in downtown of social services aimed at low-income and homeless citizens.”

Some of the homeless report that the majority of their troubles downtown come from police, and hence, many have expressed that they actually like the parking lot at the intersection of Sylvia Lane and America Street that the city has designated as an authorized group-feeding site – Orlando Food Not Bombs, though, has derided it as a “feeding cage” because of the barbed-wire fencing encircling the lot.

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