Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: feeding the homeless in Orlando

>> Thursday, June 09, 2011

Hello, everyone, and thanks for the questions so far! I see we have some good ones in the pipeline, and please keep them coming this week if you have them.

We'll start with the first question in the queue, from Anonymous. Anon. wants to know:

What are your thoughts on the story I link to below? Is the city being reasonable, or are we getting more and more Dickensian as time moves forward?


Good questions. Where to begin?

Let me begin with the easiest part of this: we live in an era when the two major political parties in the United States have come to represent, respectively, a centrist-conservative social and economic agenda and a radical libertarian extremist laissez-faire agenda. The workers' greatest safeguard against abuses by employers whose only concern is shareholder return, the ability to organize, is besieged where it hasn't been defanged or completely outlawed. The previous presidential administration expressed outright hostility to environmental regulation and the current administration (at best) isn't making it a priority (at worst, the Obama administration may be following in the Bush administration's footsteps. Economic policy arguments appear to have devolved past arguments over the proper role of government down to arguments over how limited government's role should be. Much of the social welfare safety net established by Lyndon Johnson was gutted by Presidents Clinton and Bush, and the social welfare net established by Franklin Roosevelt is under assault by Republicans who want to privatize social security. A significant percentage of the country appears to be hostile to public education. You get the idea: yes, "Dickensian" isn't amiss as an adjective for the times. Let's put it this way: Ikea opened a factory in Virginia for the same reasons American corporations open sweatshops in China and Mexico. Isn't that nice?

But I'm not sure that's what the Food Not Bombs story is about.

Here's a quick and hopefully non-inaccurate summary of what's going on: Food Not Bombs is a vegan activist group that has been setting up food giveaways for the homeless in Orlando's public parks since 2005:

Our group shares food because people need it and as a means of calling attention to our society's failure to provide food and housing to each of its members. We do this in public spaces, such as parks, because we believe that space should be reclaimed for the use of everyone, not just the privileged. We are an activist collective and humanitarian group that opposes the poverty, inequality, violence, war and militarism, prejudice and oppression, and environmental destruction that make groups such as ours necessary. We believe in trying to solve problems such as hunger through direct action as much as possible, and without seeking any permission or assistance from government. We do not use any tax money or grants to fund our activities, although we gladly accept voluntary contributions.

Orlando Food Not Bombs meals usually include vegan soup or stew with rice on the side, bread pudding, steamed or baked vegetables, fruit, bread, pastries, bagels, and juice and water. Breakfast may include oatmeal or grits, bagels or other bread, pancakes, and fresh fruit. Vegan means that the food contains NO animal ingredients. Individuals and groups are welcome to bring non-vegan/non-vegetarian food to our sharings.

So far, so good. While I'm not a vegan (and in fact quite enjoy my meat and intend to continue doing so), the idea of offering healthy food to the homeless is undeniably noble (undeniably: anyone who has a problem with charitable acts of offering succor to those in need, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, educating the ignorant and healing the sick needs to have their soul examined).

Except: while the principles are noble, the practical side of things is that one is assembling a large group (some number of whom have mental health, substance abuse and legal problems that are the reason they're homeless in the first place) and hoping everyone will behave themselves and that things will be conducted in a healthy and safe manner. This proved to be problematic, or at least a number of people living near the parks or trying to enjoy the parks themselves began complaining to the city about the gatherings; whether the complaints had merit or not, or regardless of how much merit, the city of Orlando responded by having a series of public meetings and eventually passing a city ordinance that the 11th Circuit Court Of Appeals described thus (PDF link):

Orlando Food Not Bombs can obtain two permits a year for each of the 42 parks in the Greater Downtown Parks District, which allows for a total of 84 group feedings a year at parks within a two mile radius of the City Hall. The ordinance places no restrictions on the number of large group feedings Orlando Food Not Bombs can sponsor at any of the other 66 parks located outside the Greater Downtown Parks District. The City "neither attempts to ban [large group feedings] generally nor to ban [them] everywhere in the parks." ... The ordinance leaves open ample channels of communication; Orlando Food Not Bombs is not prevented by the ordinance from conducting as many political rallies, demonstrations, distributions of literature, or any other expressive activities as it likes at Lake Eola Park. The ordinance also narrowly furthers the substantial interest of the City in managing its parks and "be[ing] fair to individual neighborhoods" by spreading the burden of the large group feedings. [cit. omit.; bracketed text in original.]

As you may have already guessed from the source of the above quote, this was litigated. Food Not Bombs and a related organization, First Vagabonds Church Of God, sued the city of Orlando, contending that the ordinance was an unconstitutional prior restraint of expressive conduct (giving out food to the homeless) and restraint of the right of assembly, both protected by the First Amendment. A Federal District Court agreed (unobjectionably, I might add: the decision is consistent with First Amendment caselaw) and held the ordinance unconstitutional and enjoined the city from enforcing it. The city appealed, and the case was ultimately heard by an en banc panel of the 11th Circuit Court Of Appeals, who held that the handing out of food to the homeless was protected expressive conduct, but that the ordinance was constitutional "both as a reasonable time, place, or manner restriction of speech and as a reasonable regulation of expressive conduct."

Considering the paragraph I quoted above, describing the ordinance, I find it hard to disagree.

I mean, okay, so it is very likely that at least some of the complaints of park neighbors consisted of selfish assholes pissing and moaning about vagrants mucking up their pristine views out their front windows instead of decorously hiding under bridges like they're supposed to. Some people just suck. But it's also very likely that there were at least a few occasions upon which folks who showed up for a free lunch hung around and misbehaved after Food Not Bombs had packed up their stewpots and beans. And even if nothing particularly bad had happened yet, it's not hard to imagine something could foreseeably occur and it isn't unreasonable for the local government to take some modest steps to solve problems before they arise. And even if nothing bad ever happened and nothing ever could, the reality is simply that 150 perfect angels showing up for lunch at a public park has implications for the public toilets, greenery maintenance, trash collection, and a number of other related concerns besides, even if Food Not Bombs and First Vagabonds Church Of God stick around for several hours trying to clean the place up and making sure everything is back to what it was; it isn't unreasonable for the city to want to spread these issues around so that it isn't just one park that's getting hammered again and again or is effectively being converted from its intended purpose as a place for the enjoyment of all the citizenry. I don't see anything terribly onerous in the ordinance, though I might be missing something--it's possible, I suppose, that unlimited access to parks outside the permit zone is meaningless if those parks are somehow inaccessible because of their remoteness, though being able to host meals a quarter of the year in parks within the permit zone doesn't seem terribly imbalanced to me (note that Food Not Bombs can still partner with churches and businesses in the area to distribute food on "off" days). There's no evidence I'm aware of that permits are being unreasonably denied (that would put a different spin on things) and the implication appears to be that the city is merely interested in finding a balance between various citizens' competing needs.

The 11th Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling insofar as the injunction was concerned, allowing the city to enforce the ordinance. Food Not Bombs responded by breaking the law, which one can choose to see as an act of civil disobedience or of petulance. I'm not unsympathetic to the civil disobedience perspective, but I believe an essential element of civil disobedience is the willingness to go to jail for principle, thus if Food Not Bombs is engaging in civil disobedience, they're also receiving the expected consequence of their decision to ignore a law they contend is unjust. Of course, contra, I'm also a believer in the rule of law, and I have to say that Food Not Bombs has had fair hearing on their views (both administratively, it appears, when the ordinance was being discussed before it was passed, and in the courts) and lost; it's hard not to suspect that if the shoe were on the other foot and the 11th Circuit had upheld the restraining order against Orlando and the city had ignored a court order enjoining them from enforcing the ordinance, Food Not Bombs would be less cavalier about the respect to be accorded the laws and indeed would be loudly demanding that the city respect the 11th Circuit opinion, and rightly so (funny how that works). Another problem with the civil disobedience angle: the usual practice when breaking an "illegal" law is that one argues the illegality in court so that the law can be overturned; in this instance, the legal fight has been had and the protesters have already had their day in court and lost, making the civil disobedience a bit pointless as far as that goes, so far as I can tell.

So, to answer the question: as far as I can tell, a Federal Circuit Court Of Appeals has said the city is being reasonable and I see no reason to disagree. The issue isn't compassion towards the homeless, the issue is that an attempt has been made to balance reasonable concerns and one side has decided they don't need to comply with the results of a decision that went against them.

Two last points I feel I should make. The first is that all of the above is based on a few minutes of research; there may be things that would change my opinion if I knew them, particularly if there is, in fact, some reason the ordinance is more onerous than it sounds or the 11th Court holding more naïve or disingenuous than it sounds; e.g. if the city were to create a permit process and then deny every permit application, the "reasonable" process would merely be a fig leaf for illegal prior restraint and unconscionable treatment of some of the city's most vulnerable and needy residents. In fairness, that kind of thing goes both ways: Food Not Bombs appears to be a bunch of nice people, whether or not I share their dietary preferences, and their hearts appear to be in the right places at least as far as loving their fellow man goes (with regard to their respect for civic institutions and the rule, maybe not so much). Anyone who has any insights on any of these scores, feel free to chime in.

The second point, not unrelated to the first, is that this is another unfortunate example of the media jumping on the most interesting and least accurate angle for a story. I don't see any evidence that this is the city of Orlando being heartless (though that might, in fact, be the case), and the members of Food Not Bombs who were arrested weren't arrested for being good Samaritans so much as they were arrested for being good Samaritans who thumbed their noses at a constitutionally-valid ordinance requiring them to obtain a permit before performing certain activities in certain places. Which is something different. It's not unlike a newspaper reporting that a man was arrested for having a properly-licensed firearm and leaving out the bit where he used it to shoot his ex-girlfriend and her fiancee six times. A tad different. Just a touch. The Orlando Sentinel coverage acknowledges there was a "court battle" but manages to leave out the not-trivial fact that it was an en banc decision where the entire 11th Circuit (except for one judge who recused himself) heard the case and found that Food Not Bombs' actions were constitutionally-protected but the city ordinance was a reasonable restriction on when and where those actions occurred; i.e. it's perfectly legal to hand out food to the homeless in Orlando (not that you'd think it to read the Sentinel article), but if you want to do it in a public park within two miles of city hall, you have to get a permit first. "Activists Arrested For Not Filing Forms" doesn't make for nearly as nifty a headline as "Three Arrested, Accused Of Illegally Feeding Homeless", one just wishes journalists, editors and publishers would focus on reporting instead of trolling.

Hope that was an insightful reply, and thanks for the question!

POSTSCRIPT June 9th, 2011, 1:56 PM: This article in The Mail Online paints a less-sympathetic portrait of the city of Orlando's conduct in the matter, though their account of the legal angles is a little muddled and the story seems to rely a great deal on quotes from Food Not Bombs (including a statement that completely misrepresents the 11th Circuit decision).

Thought I'd post a link, though, so you can read and decide what you think about the information it provides yourself.


Steve Buchheit Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 2:17:00 PM EDT  

It could also be a prohibited permitting process if the fees are set to high, or if the application process itself is onerous. I haven't researched it, but I would guess the 11th would have ascertained such.

I'll also point out that those who conduct Civil Disobedience most definitely should consider the possibility of jail time. It's part of the gig. It can also be part of the strategy depending on the court costs and who pays (and how much it actually defers the cost of the court). It's a strategy meant to clog the system and jails and in general make a hassle out of enforcing the laws so that either the law is changed, or the enforcement mechanism is just ignored for expediency.

Steve Buchheit Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 2:18:00 PM EDT  

that is "It could also be a prohibitive permitting process", sorry about that.

timb111 Friday, June 10, 2011 at 10:02:00 AM EDT  

I am active in a group in Edmonton Canada that distributes food to the underprivileged on a weekly basis. We used to distribute the food in a vacant lot in the heart of the inner-city, however, there were a lot of complaints about public urination and more appalling behavior. The police explained the situation and asked us to relocate or stop.

We relocated to the parking lot of a Catholic school about 14 blocks away. While we advertised the fact and shuttled people to the new location for a while the number that come dropped by half. So maybe the people showing up don't need the food that badly (this is socialist Canada after all, though it breaks my heart to see little kids attack a bag of bread like my grandkids would attack a bag of candy), or perhaps when you are down and out and have no vehicle and even public transportation is beyond your means, even a couple of kilometers is too far to go for food.

It sounds to me like Food Not Bombs has an agenda beyond feeding the poor and that the agenda is reflected, at least in part, by the name of the group. It seems like their actions have garnered a lot of publicity. Whether that publicity will result in more food for the destitute or less bombs is questionable.

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