In the squeaky-clean fantasy world of Mickey Mouse and Cinderella, the homeless are an unwelcome reminder of reality. So reviled are the homeless in Orlando—it is considered the third meanest city for the homeless in the country and it has been ranked number one for the last four years as the city that is the most violent toward the homeless—that Orlando has now decided that requiring “beggar badges” and turning a blind eye to violent attacks (Last year, a homeless woman in Pompano Beach was raped and nearly strangled. Earlier in the year, two homeless men in West Palm Beach were shot and killed and a Fort Lauderdale man was accused of harassing the homeless with a chainsaw) is not enough to dehumanize the homeless, now we also need to starve them. At least if they happen to be eating around people that have homes.
This past Wednesday, a federal appeals-court overruled a lower court ruling that said the city could not prevent groups from feeding the homeless in the city parks. The court ruled that the law does not violate the First Amendment under Florida law. This overturns the 2008 ruling wherein a federal judge had ruled in favor of the homeless and their advocates in a decision that claimed that the law violated the homeless advocates constitutional right to free speech.
Orlando Food Not Bombs, a plaintiff in the case, had asserted that its meals expressed an explicit message to observers that society had to take care of and feed its homeless. But the court’s decision on Wednesday found that the feedings were not expressive enough to constitute a perceptible free-speech claim. Per the First Amendment Center, the court held that “a party asserting a free-speech claim based on expressive conduct must establish (1) the intent to convey a particularized message and (2) that a reasonable observer would understand the message.”
Additionally, the court wrote, “We accept that Orlando Food Not Bombs had the requisite expressive intent, but we believe that the feedings in this case present at most an ambiguous situation to an objective reasonable observer,” the appeals court wrote. “Just feeding people in the park is conduct too ambiguous to allow us to conclude that a great likelihood exists that an objective reasonable observer would understand that the feeders are trying to convey a message.”
The court also denied the free-exercise claim brought forth by Orlando Food Not Bombs by stating that the law was neutral in that it applied to any general group, not just Orlando food Not Bombs, as such they were able to use a “rational basis” standard to review the law wherein the court decided that “the city’s interest in reducing overall wear and tear on its parks was rational.” If that is the case why not require permits for those 25 people to be in the park walking around—oh wait you can’t do that but you can stop us from feeding them. Why not create permits for everyone who just wants to come in the park if “wear and tear” is your “rational concern?”
Orlando Food Not Bombs is, of course, asking for a rehearing of the case, in the meantime the members vow to continue feeding the homeless.
While the ordinance will not take effect for 20 days, once it does Orlando Food Not Bombs and other homeless advocacy groups will not be able to legally feed those most in need.
Originally passed in 2006, the law requires a permit before anyone can feed a crowd of 25 or more and only two permits are allowed per year for each of the city’s three parks (yet somehow the weekly farmers market gets to take up exorbitant room on a weekly basis at Lake Eola Park). This would ostensibly limit the any groups plans to feed the homeless…although technically if a group had at least 26 members than each member could conceivably get two permits each and that would provide them sufficient legal standing to do the weekly feedings they have been doing for so many years now.
The major complain seems to be that those living or working near the parks don’t like seeing all those homeless people standing around eating and breathing as if they were real people. Most seem to wonder why the homeless aren’t fed indoors instead of outside—for the advocacy groups the answer is simple—the parks are free and open to the public so why buy or rent space? As for the city, it has already spent $40,000 appealing the case so it could have rented or bought a pretty inexpensive place to feed the homeless, but I guess the city would prefer to just fight to see if we can become the meanest city for the homeless.
Advocates for the homeless decry the law and the ruling:
“We take the position that the right to food is a basic human right,” said Karen Cunningham, legal director at the National Law Center, which had filed a brief supporting opponents of the restrictions. “More people will undoubtedly go hungry, even though there are churches and other organizations willing to share food with them. Particularly in this difficult economy, restricting people’s ability to help is just a terrible response to the community’s discomfort with the homeless.”
Migdalia Pagan, founder of New Vision Ministry, which also feeds homeless people at Lake Eola, was more blunt: “They’re always trying to find a way to close the doors on the people who want to do something for the homeless,” she said. “If you don’t want us to feed the homeless in the park, then donate a building, Orlando, so we can take care of the homeless and get them off the street.”
“What ever happened to freedom of assembly?” asked Bruce Shawen, a homeless activist and Navy veteran who lives in a camp in the woods. “It’s unfortunate that the city of Orlando views it as an us-vs.-them situation, like we’re the enemy. What these feedings do is give people a sense of hope, a sense that someone cares about them.”
People need to realize that homelessness is a civic reality that cannot be ignored or simply moved out of the park. Laws such as this dehumanize the homeless and foster the attitudes that allow people to feel that it is okay to mistreat or even be violent towards the homeless. Unfortunately, the homeless are essentially invisible, and when they are noticed they are reviled, ignored and deeply misunderstood. This dehumanization is probably best exemplified by the “bum fight” videos prevalent on YouTube. In these videos “bums” are forced to fight in matches orchestrated by their captors. If a single video of this nature existed for any other religious or minority group the national outcry would be instantaneous. The clarion call would go out for government action. Instead, “bum fights” can be found on the internet or, for collectors, on DVD. Maxim Magazine even ran an article entitled “Hunt the Homeless.” Imagine if that said “Hunt the _____(insert race, religion, etc).”
We need to be aware of the many causes of homelessness other than drugs or alcohol:
- Family break-ups
- Domestic violence
- Physical and mental disabilities
- Health problems and related costs
We need to be aware of the populations that are at risk of becoming homeless including:
- Single women with children
- Families with poverty level incomes
- Youth aging out of foster care
- Persons being released from correctional facilities
- Women and Children escaping domestic abuse
- Persons with severe and persistent mental illness.
We need to be aware of who the homeless are:
- 40% of all homeless people are families
- 60% are single adults
- 8% are elderly persons over 62 years of age
- 23% are children age 18 or younger
- 17.3% are military veterans
In 2009 alone, there were nearly 50,000 filings for foreclosure in Florida–up 70% over 2008. Because of this nearly 50% of the people who are homeless are experiencing homelessness for the first time ever. Those who have experienced four or more episodes of homelessness in their lives make up just over one-fourth of the total homeless.
The anti-feeding law does nothing to resolve the true issue at hand…how to feed and help those in need. As U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell stated in 2008, “How does moving the problem around address any legitimate public interest?” Presnell said. “You’re not solving the problem, just moving it around and perhaps making it worse.”
As a disclaimer, I should state that I used to volunteer with D.C. Food Not Bombs a decade or more ago so I have a special affinity for what Orlando Food Not Bombs is doing, but my knowledge of the organization doesn’t cloud my judgment as much as it simply makes me more sure that we should unite in solidarity to share in the vulnerability of those less fortunate and help foster a new social reframing of homelessness and poverty as part of a broader vision of a new social contract.
I once heard a society’s morality is best measured by how it treats its most vulnerable. If this report is any indication, our society is not measuring up.