Feeding the homeless is usually seen as a charitable act beyond reproach. But three members of national activist group Food Not Bombs found themselves on the other side of the law in Orlando, Fla. Wednesday for doing just that in a public park, an act that violates a city ordinance.
The three were arrested for, according to spokesperson for the Orlando police, “intentionally violat[ing] the statute,” which bans feeding groups larger than 25 people in the park without a permit. Groups can apply for a permit for each location twice a year.
Douglas Coleman, a spokesman for the group, sees the issue differently: “They basically carted them off to jail for feeding hungry people.”
“For them to regulate a time and place for free speech and to share food, that is unacceptable,” he continued.
This entire controversy began when, according to the Christian Science Monitor, Food Not Bombs began feeding the homeless twice a week in Lake Eola Park in 2005. After residents began to complain, the city passed the ordinance in 2006. The group filed a lawsuit disputing the constitutionality of the law.
When the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled the ordinance did not violate the group’s constitutional rights last June, Orlando city attorney Mayanne Downs explained that the law was passed “to protect all the downtown parks from abusive use or overly exclusive use by one party or community.” The group appealed again, but lost in April.
Keith McHenry, co-founder of the group and one of those arrested, told the Orlando Sentinel they planned to keep feeding the homeless without permits.
Some have questioned the city’s decision to enforce this ordinance. Many people have shown their support for the three arrested on Food Not Bomb’s Facebook page. One of the people fed by the group told News13 in Orlando, “They really have been kind of a lifeline.”
Debate over city ordinances is nothing new. Cordova, Ala., Mayor Jack Scott recently came under fire for refusing to allow FEMA mobile homes in the town, which was struck by two tornadoes in April. Allowing them would violate a law meant to keep trailers out of the town, according to the Associated Press. A Facebook page calling the mayor “cruel-hearted” is liked by over 2,500 people.
In a similar head-scratching battle, Linda Downey was given a citation in May for flying seven flags outside her sub shop in Crystal River, Fla. A city ordinance allows only three. Downey, who has two sons in the military, was invited on Fox & Friends, which asked the question “Owner cited for patriotism?”