Court Says: “Let the Poor Starve”

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on July 15, 2010

The “let them eat nothing, not even cake” award goes to Orlando City Attorney Mayanne Downs who, upon hearing that a federal appeals court will allow the city to enforce its heartless ordinance against feeding the homeless in a local park, said: “The point here was to protect Lake Eola Park. It’s a very important part of our city’s heritage and history, and all we wanted to do was to protect it from an unfair burden.” I guess compassion isn’t a part of Orlando’s “heritage and history.”

The ordinance was passed in 2006 after businesses and neighbors in the park area complained about daily feedings that groups were providing for the homeless and poor. The law mandates that anyone providing meals must obtain a permit every time they want to feed more than 25 people in a park within two miles of City Hall. But only two permits can be granted to an organization yearly.

A federal judge rightly ruled that the restriction was unconstitutional. But the appeals court saw it differently, siding with those that would stop Orlando Food Not Bombs and other groups from serving its meals.

“The city is criminalizing homelessness and poverty and criminalizing individuals and organizations in the community that are trying to address those problems,” Eric Montanez of Food Not Bombs told the Orlando Sentinel. His group has continued to feed people throughout the four-year court battle.

“These are people with faces and names and families and stories,” explained P.J. Charles, who heads up Straight Street Orlando, which provides meals at the park. “Some of them are veterans. Some of them are hard-working blue-collar folks, and some are families broken apart by the economy. … In the City Beautiful, what’s more beautiful than human beings helping human beings?”

Obviously, Orlando’s City Council doesn’t want to help human beings. Instead of denying the poor a meal, it could have appropriated the money the city is spending to defend the ordinance ($40,000 so far) for the purchase or rental of a building for Food Not Bombs and other groups to provide free meals.

Mayanne Downs and her NIMBY buddies in the business community aren’t concerned about the park, they’re worried that the sight of the homeless lined up for a meal is upsetting the people they really care about.

As Patty Sheehan, a city commissioner whose district includes the park, explained it: “Over 100 people have been gathering at the park every day, and it’s really becoming a problem. It’s gotten to the point where people are telling me they are no longer going to take their families to the park anymore.”

Why? Because they don’t want their children to see poor people? Because they don’t want their children to know that, in this worsening economy, they could be standing in that very same line waiting for a meal?

The ordinance is plain just mean.

Orlando is not the only city in Florida that has gone the vindictive route. Add Fort Lauderdale, Sarasota, West Palm Beach, Miami and Gainesville to the Hall of Shame for their laws that restrict feeding the poor and hungry.

A Hall of Shame that includes the city of San Francisco, which once arrested members of our own local Food Not Bombs for feeding poor folks in the Civic Center area.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which has been nominated for both an American Library Association and a Lambda Literary award. His website is www.avicollimecca.com.

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