For years, Orlando has had some of the strictest rules on panhandling, even being named one of the 20 “meanest cities in America” by the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2003. Now, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s administration is considering replacing those restrictions with new rules that would instead target aggressive solicitations but otherwise allow a much broader range of panhandling activities.
The current system, based on an ordinance passed in 2000, was widely criticized by homeless advocates for being overly punitive and unrealistic. Panhandling was prohibited altogether in the downtown area, with the exception of several dozen small 3′-by-15′ blue boxes painted on the sidewalks. Potential penalties included up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. A few years later, additional restrictions on public group feedings and restrictions on panhandling at night caused new controversy. Hundreds of people have been arrested every year for violating these ordinances, according to The Orlando Sentinel.
One point that critics of the restrictions frequently make is that the city has not maintained the blue boxes. An Orlando Weekly article from ten years ago noted that many of the blue boxes had been lost due to construction zones or fading paint:
But the blue-box ordinance is still in effect, even if you can’t find one.
“There were originally 35 of those blue boxes, and a lot of those are now in construction zones,” says Orlando Police Department Sgt. Russ Waters. “And if they’re in construction zones, then the boxes are pretty much gone because they’ve torn up all of the sidewalks. And some of the paint has faded. However, we are still enforcing that they have to be in the blue box.” Waters clarifies that if someone is asking for money where a box once was, but the lines are no longer visible, officers will not penalize the panhandler.
The Sentinel noted that the blue boxes had inconvenient locations, with no shelter from sun or rain, and there was often conflict over their use because of their scarcity:
Linda Huggins, a 49-year-old homeless woman, said she hopes the city embraces the change. In nearly four years living on the streets of Orlando, she said, she has spent many miserable hours in the city’s 26 blue boxes.
“Very rarely are they in the shade, and none of them keep you out of the rain,” said Huggins, who suffers from frequent seizures and depression. “And sometimes there is fussing and arguing over a blue box because a couple of men will get in there and stay all day.”
A major motivation behind the city reconsidering these restrictions is a series of court cases around the country striking down ordinances very similar to Orlando’s, on free speech grounds. A 2013 federal court case struck down an ordinance that banned soliciting money in downtown Tampa and Ybor City, and the majority of court cases over the past several years have come down against panhandling restrictions.
The new ordinance that will be discussed at the City Council meeting on Monday would repeal the current restrictions and add different ones aimed at “still protecting our citizens and visitors from unwanted aggressive solicitation.” These new restrictions include prohibiting lying or sitting (including in chairs or on blankets) on the sidewalks in the downtown area and certain “aggressive” or “misleading” solicitation behaviors, including blocking exits, physically touching people, soliciting people who are in line at an ATM or otherwise a captive audience, continuing to solicit after a clear refusal, or falsely claiming veteran status or a handicap that does not exist.
The new ordinance will be discussed at the City Council meeting on Monday, July 10, at 2:00 pm in the City Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall. A complete agenda can be viewed here, and the meetings are open to the public and streamed online. Anyone wishing to address the City Council needs to complete an Appearance Request form, which is available in the City Clerk’s Office during regular business hours, and at the City Clerk’s location on the dais in the Council Chambers.
Photo by vhines200 via Flickr.
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