Orlando continues to make worldwide news.
Here's the headline from London's Daily Mail: "Please don't feed the homeless: Good Samaritans ARRESTED and facing jail ... for handing out food."
This silly and costly war has gone on long enough. After five years, it's time for a compromise.
So on Tuesday, I tried to play the part of peacemaker.
It wasn't easy. I knew I was in trouble the first time Buddy Dyer used the phrase "food terrorists."
But I think we made some headway. First, though, the background:
Orlando has long struggled with homelessness.
For many years, the city's go-to solution was a jail cell. Instead of comprehensive solutions, the city made it a crime to panhandle after dark … or outside the little blue boxes painted on the sidewalks.
The tactics were as foolish as they were ineffective. The number of homeless residents — 40 percent of whom were families — continued to climb.
So Food Not Bombs — a loose-knit group of idealists, leftists and even socialists — decided to address the problem themselves. They'd gather at Lake Eola, a public park, and ladle out vegetarian chili to the hungry.
Businesses and residents complained. They didn't like the homeless gathering there and complaining about the public urination and trash that sometimes accompanied the events.
So the city created yet another crime — this time targeting those helping the homeless. Orlando banned "group feedings," citing the events as "detrimental to the aesthetic atmosphere of parks."
Both sides fought in court. Food Not Bombs won an early round. The city won in the end.
That brings us to Monday, when police arrested four more people for illegally wielding ladles. The activists are expected to be back tonight … when Buddy's police force will probably arrest them, too.
None of this does a thing to actually combat homelessness.
A big part of me sides with the activists for this basic reason: It simply shouldn't be a crime to help another soul in need, using your own resources in a public place.
In fact, one minister I know said that if Jesus was here today, she's pretty sure that he'd be handing out food to the hungry, no matter what Orlando City Code 18A.01 says.
Dyer argues there are plenty of other authorized places for the homeless to eat — and that other organizations do a better job of addressing the bigger issue.
I agree with him. That's why my wife and I have donated to groups like the Coalition for the Homeless, IDignity and the Regional Commission on Homelessness — and not Food Not Bombs.
That doesn't change my thoughts on criminalizing charity.
But Dyer insists these are radicals — "food terrorists" more interested in publicity than the downtrodden.
I'm not sure I buy that. Still, even if Food Not Bombs belonged to al-Qaida, that wouldn't change my thoughts on the law itself.
Dyer's best point is that many other things are regulated in city parks. You can't just hold a business seminar or political rally there every day of the week.
So where does that leave us? Arresting a new batch of peace activists every week, ad infinitum?
I asked Buddy if he was willing to compromise.
"There's always room for compromise," he grudgingly responded.
And what about you, Food Not Bombs?
"Yes," responded group leader Ben Markeson. "We would be open to dialogue and reasonable suggestions. Being arrested once is more than enough."
My thought would be to let Food Not Bombs serve food in a designated part of the park. The city could limit the size and frequency and even keep it a certain distance from the park's playground — but steer clear of blanket laws banning food distribution.
Markeson said he'd be willing to talk about it.
Dyer reminded me that his side already won the court case.
And I reminded him of the headline in the Daily Mail.
He then said his staff would be happy to talk — though he'd prefer to talk about alternate feeding locations.
Buddy even offered to let Food Not Bombs gather in front of City Hall any time they liked, saying he'd even donate some of the peppers he grows on his mayoral balcony to the chili pot.
I'm not sure these two sides will be holding rallies together anytime soon. But more talk about compromise and homegrown peppers sure beats handcuffs.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-6141
Breaking bread and breaking the law — isn't it time both sides talked about feeding the homeless?
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