Monday, October 1, 2007

Orlando: Home of Unenforceable Laws


Orlando: Home of unenforceable laws

By Dan Moffett

Palm Beach Post Editorial Writer

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A government can get full of itself from time to time and think that it can solve a complicated problem by holding a meeting and passing a new law.

Hubris and frustration form a lethal combination in the hands of power.

So it was in West Palm Beach last week, when Mayor Lois Frankel used her vote to break a deadlocked city commission and push through a new ordinance that bans the feeding of homeless people near the library and amphitheater downtown.

The law is intended to satisfy Clematis Street merchants who have complained that gatherings of homeless people are driving away business. Church groups and political activists henceforth will be prohibited from handing out food in the public places.

Before diving headfirst into what figures to be a sinkhole of constitutional quicksand, Mayor Frankel should have studied closer the experiences of her old pal Buddy Dyer, the mayor of Orlando. The two served together as ranking Democrats in the Legislature.

Mayor Dyer has one of the worst homeless problems in the state. Estimates put the population around Orlando at more than 8,000.

Last year, he heard the same complaints from business and tourism officials that Mayor Frankel is hearing. With Mayor Dyer's blessing, the Orlando city commission passed an ordinance regulating the feeding of large groups in downtown parks. Within weeks, the Central Florida ACLU filed suit in federal court arguing that the law is unconstitutional.

But forget about constitutionality for a moment. Let's look at enforcement.

In April, Orlando police actually sent a team of undercover officers to shut down a coalition of groups - antiwar activists such as [Orlando] Food Not Bombs, [Orlando] CodePink [Women for Peace] and [the] Young Communist [League] - who were trying to circumvent the law on a technicality: It prohibited feeding more than 25 people, so each group purported to serve only 24.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, plainclothes police shot photos from the bushes and counted how many ladles of vegetable stew the activists served. When the 30th homeless person walked off with a full plate, the police moved in and arrested [Eric Montanez,] a 21-year-old [member of Orlando Food Not Bombs] and put him in jail.

Then police collected a vial of the stew as evidence. It wasn't exactly the kind of duty they had in mind back when they entered the academy.

But the city has all sorts of homeless laws that must be enforced.

It is illegal to be caught in a horizontal position on a park bench in Orlando. Bathing or shaving in a public restroom is prohibited. It is illegal to wash clothes in the downtown park. And don't even think about sleeping in the shrubs and bushes.

Panhandling has been a chronic problem, and Orlando has tried all sorts of laws to restrict it after the courts rejected an outright ban - including issuing ID cards to panhandlers, limiting them to daytime hours, and, seven years ago, restricting beggars to 36, 3-by-15-foot blue squares painted on downtown sidewalks.

Now, how well do you think that blue-square idea has worked?

Orlando has proved conclusively that government cannot solve the homeless problem by writing new laws. Ask the city police who have to enforce them or the city attorneys who have to defend them in court. Or, ask the downtown merchants who see no improvements and still are complaining.

The best chance government has of making gains against this complex social problem is to work harder with charitable groups who do not come with political or overtly religious agendas - groups that want to help chronically homeless people with their underlying physical, mental and substance-abuse problems.

In West Palm Beach, that means the United Way, the Salvation Army, the Lord's Place and dozens of churches that provide services to poor people for the right reasons.

Mayor Frankel has her new ordinance. Soon, she will have the new problems that go with it. Orlando knows what's coming.

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