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Happytown

The city starves its empathy (again), DPAC trips over its pretense (again) and your legislature does not want you to vote. No alarms, no surprises ... please.

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Just when we think we shouldlay off the homeless beat for awhile, some serious shit goes down. On April 12, the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the City of Orlando's "group feeding ordinance" - which places restrictions on sharing food with groups of 25 or more people in public spaces within a two-mile radius of City Hall- "does not violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment." This means that the plaintiffs, a collection of hirsute anarchists called Food Not Bombs, who feed the homeless at Lake Eola Park every Monday morning and Wednesday evening, will have to apply for a permit to serve their vegetarian food at the lakeside picnic area, and will only be able to do so twice per year.

The ruling is the latest (though surely not the final) chapter in a five-year legal battle between Food Not Bombs and the city, which made its way to the Eleventh Circuit Court after a federal judge overturned the ordinance in 2008. The appeals court already ruled in favor of the city in December of 2009, but the case was granted a rare rehearing this past February. Last week's decision may prove to be the dagger to regular food sharings at Lake Eola Park, yet Mayor Buddy Dyer and company have not decided to plunge it in quite yet. At a press conference on April 13, a bestubbled Dyer said that he would not begin enforcing the ordinance until he consulted with a "multi-departmental team" consisting of police, legal, parks and public works.

Exhumed from 2008 and distributed from the mayor's podium was a list of parks within the two-mile bubble around downtown, as well as a registry of free meals available to the homeless. "The way this case … has been sometimes portrayed in the media is that the city is somehow preventing homeless feedings. Nothing is further from the truth," Dyer said. "At any lunch or dinner time, seven days a week, people in need can receive a meal."

But the devil is in the details, according to Steve Proveau, a thin, middle-aged homeless man whom Happytown™ spoke with at a Food Not Bombs sharing later that evening. "You can eat three times a day, but it's not in any one place, and it's not guaranteed," Proveau says, describing long lines for sandwiches at the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, as well as a hostile, urine-scented environment at the Coalition for the Homeless. "We're no different than anybody else walking their dog," he says. "We like the scenery [at Lake Eola Park]."

Food Not Bombs' attorney Jacqueline Dowd was also at the sharing and visibly drained. After all, she had spent years arguing that food sharing was an "expressive conduct" protected by the First Amendment, which the Eleventh Circuit Court agreed with in a matter of a couple sentences. Yet it also argued, at much further length, that First Amendment rights do not always supersede "reasonable regulation." "I thought they ruled on something which was in the rear-view mirror," Dowd says.

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