Walking around downtown Orlando, Fla., feels like strolling through "The Truman Show" 's fictional town of Seahaven. But spotless sidewalks, a tidy business district, lush parks and lakes belie a real city with real problems, in particular a burgeoning homeless population that local officials are struggling to control. After a law banning begging outright was struck down by the courts, the city tried regulating panhandlers by issuing them ID cards, then by confining them to three- by 15-foot "panhandling zones" painted on sidewalks. But it wasn't enough, so this summer Orlando tried a supply-side solution, cracking down on churches and activists who had been feeding large groups of homeless people in downtown parks. Now it's not just the panhandlers who risk getting arrested, it's the people trying to help them.
Advocates say anti-feeding ordinances are the latest in a series of municipal efforts to legislate against homelessness. A report this year by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) found double-digit increases since 2002 in laws prohibiting begging, sitting and lying in public places. A week before Orlando passed its ordinance, Las Vegas outlawed giving food to even a single indigent in any city park. The law defines an indigent as a person who appears "to be entitled to apply for or receive" government assistance. "It's revoltingly immoral. It literally enforces a class regime by defining criminal behavior based on income," says Lee Rowland, a public advocate with the ACLU of Nevada, which filed suit in August against the Vegas feeding ban.
"Cities figure that if you quit feeding the homeless, they'll go away," says NCH executive director Michael Stoops. But in Orlando they've kept coming, drawn by warm weather and low-skill service- industry jobs. The homeless population, including seasonal agricultural workers, is estimated at about 7,000; the city has shelter capacity for about 2,000.
Activist and church groups tried to fill the gap with food programs. The largest, run by a group called Food Not Bombs, began giving away meals once a week at Lake Eola, one of Orlando's most pristine parks. Their well-intentioned efforts led to some negative side effects for nearby residents. Police say that crime, along with reports of trespassing and lewd behavior, spiked after many of the large feedings, which often drew hundreds of homeless into some of the nicest parts of downtown. "I was having to pick up human waste from my yard and shoo people out from sleeping in my bushes," says Robert Harding, a local attorney whose office is around the corner from Lake Eola Park.
While the ordinance has reduced the size and frequency of feedings, Food Not Bombs is finding ways around it by feeding from the backs of cars parked across from parks. More than once, it's thumbed its nose at the city by feeding in front of municipal buildings, even city hall, which raises the issue of whether the ban is even enforceable--just as the city prepares to defend it in court. Supported by the ACLU, Food Not Bombs sued to overturn the ban earlier this fall. Food, says the group's head Ben Markeson, "is a right, not a privilege." The city may look like a movie set, but the people lining up for sandwiches aren't actors.