Criminalizing Homelessness in Orlando and SF

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on October 16, 2007

In what has to be one of the most telling stories about the new heartlessness in America, an Orlando man stood trial on misdemeanor charges for the crime of feeding the homeless in a public park. He was found not guilty, but spent two days in court convincing a jury of that.

22-year-old Eric Montanez is part of Orlando’s Food Not Bombs, a group that brings food out on the streets to the homeless. Last year, the city enacted a law that makes it a crime to feed people in a public place without a permit. To be precise, the legislation says one can’t give food to more than 25 persons at the same location.

To build their case against Montanez, undercover police not only spied on him feeding the poor, but also counted the number of people he fed (30.) Disguised as homeless persons, the undercover cops even took pieces of the meal he served as evidence. How many real crimes were being committed during the time they spent on that sting operation?

The Central Florida ACLU is calling the law a violation of civil rights and is suing the city. Meanwhile, Orlando officials say that the law will not be enforced, pending the outcome of the suit.

The whole sad affair is just another indication of the moral bankruptcy of American politicians, not to mention the folks who support them. It’s a sure sign that politicians and voters alike don’t have a clue as to how to end homelessness or poverty in this country. Their knee-jerk reaction is always aimed at punishing the person on the street, not at finding solutions.

Here in San Francisco, the situation is not much better than in Orlando. Not only have Food Not Bombs volunteers been arrested in the past for feeding the poor in public spaces, but now homeless folks are routinely issued “quality of life” citations for the “crime” of sleeping on a sidewalk or pissing/defecating in public.

Under Mayor Gavin Newsom, over 56,000 citations have been given to the poor and homeless in less than four years. The cost to taxpayers is almost $8 million, money that could have been much better spent on providing housing and services to people in need.

Asking a person without money to pay a fine is beyond absurd. When the citation is not paid, it goes to a warrant. The person is then arrested the next time he/she is stopped by a cop. That record can be used against a person trying to get off the streets and into federally subsidized housing. In what universe does that make sense?

Religious Witness with the Homeless recently held a press conference to denounce this policy of fining poor folks, but the mayor held a simultaneous event that drew the media away. Like sheep, the reporters and camera operators followed the politician, and failed to see the real story of the day.

At least Orlando officials are backing down from their absurd and immoral law. San Francisco’s politicians are sticking by theirs.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical activist, writer and performer whose works can be found at www.avicollimecca.com

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