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Fed up

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

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“It’s in the cut; the cops don’t bother you here,” said a man named José, who declined to give his last name on a recent Saturday morning. “Peace and quiet.”

Perhaps most troubling about the city’s largely punitive approach to homelessness is that a criminal record makes it harder to find a job, and hence, get off the street. A 2006 study by the Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing found that men who had been incarcerated were roughly 6 percent less likely to be employed, and if they did have a job, made between 15 and 26 percent less money.

When Mayor Buddy Dyer is asked about allegations of police intimidation and harassment of the homeless, he answers: “I’m among the homeless quite a bit, and I’ve never had one single person say anything like that to me.”

After three membersof Orlando Food Not Bombs were arrested on June 1, marking the beginning of a crackdown that has resulted in a total of 27 arrests so far, University of Central Florida public administration professor Jay Jurie decided it would be good to quantify the argument embedded in the group’s name. In the July issue of Sounds of a Democratic Society, a magazine published by the UCF student group Students for a Democratic Society, Jurie calculated that the federal government’s most recent contributions to the Women, Infants and Children program, school lunch subsidies and food stamps totaled $101.6 billion. The Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal year 2012, on the other hand, was $671 billion.

Jurie says skewed spending priorities are evident at the local level as well: For example, a recently completed project that outfitted the fountain at Lake Eola with new Plexiglas skin and colored lights cost the city $1.6 million – more than three times the amount it gave to organizations aiding the homeless last fiscal year. In May, the city pledged $25 million toward a new performing arts center after spending $28.4 million to acquire the property opposite City Hall.

“What makes a great city?” Jurie writes in an email to the Weekly. “Is it the one that has built the grandest temples to the power and clout of the most affluent, or is it the one that first and foremost looks after the public health, safety and welfare of its residents?  Obviously, in pursuit of the former, the city of Orlando has deep-sixed the latter.”

But Mayor Dyer suggests that counties bear more of the responsibility for addressing homelessness, not cities. “The municipal government is not really the one that is responsible for health and human services,” Dyer says.

Considering that many of the unsheltered people found within Orange County on that cold January morning were found in downtown Orlando, however, it seems as if Dyer and his fellow commissioners could stand to pay more attention to the issue. But then again, they have paid a lot of attention, in a way: at Orlando Food Not Bombs’ twice-weekly food sharings, it’s not uncommon to see two plainclothes police officers, four to six uniformed police officers and two parks officials watching the activists pass out food. On June 20, two code-enforcement officers were also dispatched to the park (in addition to the regular cohort of police officials) to inform the group that their posters – all of which were resting in a stack on the ground – were in violation of city code, since the group had not applied for a permit to display them.

“This is stupid,” remarked 22-year-old Orlando Food Not Bombs member Palmer Harrell, as code enforcement officer Jerry Reid retrieved a copy of city code section 64.300. “This isn’t even real.”

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