The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Orlandoâ€TMs Homelessness Fight Continues

by Catherine Komp

*A correction was appended to this news article after initial publication.

Dec. 11, 2006 – Tensions between homeless people and city officials in Orlando, Florida are flaring after the city destroyed an encampment and a judge dismissed part of a lawsuit challenging restrictions on public meal programs in downtown parks.

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Advocates for the homeless in Orlando say they will appeal the judge’s decision throwing out a religious-freedom argument made by plaintiffs suing for the right to feed homeless people in public.

The Central Florida American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit last October on behalf of groups that provide meals to homeless people. The lawsuit challenges a city ordinance passed in July that prohibits "large group feeding" in downtown city parks without a permit. It also limits permits for each park to two per year per applicant.

The plaintiffs in the case are the First Vagabonds Church of God, a homeless ministry, and Food Not Bombs, a grassroots anti-poverty group that provides free, vegetarian meals in hundreds of public places across the country.

The lawsuit accuses the city of violating the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equal protection under the law and due process. Plaintiffs also charge that Orlando violated Florida’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, by interfering with the church’s "sincere religious beliefs [requiring it] to feed the hungry and homeless."

Last week, US District Court Judge Gregory Presnell ruled that one of the six counts in the lawsuit could be dismissed. The judge agreed with the city’s argument that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not apply in the case because the plaintiffs could feed the poor and homeless in places unaffected by the ordinance.

The restrictions on feeding the homeless and the court case surrounding it are part of an escalating conflict over Orlando’s treatment of people without permanent shelter.

Attorney Jackie Dowd, who represents the plaintiffs, said they will try to get the claim reinstated "by providing more detail about exactly how the free exercise of religion is substantially burdened by this ordinance."

The restrictions on feeding the homeless and the court case surrounding it are part of an escalating conflict over Orlando’s treatment of people without permanent shelter.

In November, city workers accompanied by police seized the belongings of people living under a freeway overpass.

"They took everything: Social Security cards, ID cards, blankets, clothes, medicine and things that you and I couldn’t put a price on, like photos of family and relatives," said George Crossley, chair of the Central Florida ACLU. Crossley, who witnessed the sweep, said his organization is considering filing an injunction to stop the practice.

City workers also attempted to confiscate belongings at an encampment in a city-owned parking lot called Sylvia Lane. City officials had specifically allotted the space, enclosed by a barbed wire fence, as an alternative spot for free meal programs.

A coalition of homelessness service providers, activist groups and homeless people formed Stop the Ordinance Partnership (STOP) in response to the city’s feeding law. STOP is planning a demonstration to protest the city’s policies against the homeless on Monday in front of Orlando City Hall.


Clarifying Note:

About an hour after publication, the first two sentences of this item were altered for clarity.

 | Change Posted December 11, 2006 at 13:10 PM EST

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Catherine Komp is a contributing journalist.

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