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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010 7 years ago

Residents target homeless feedings

by: Robin Roy City Editor

At each of its meetings, the Downtown Improvement District talks about issues critical to the vitality of downtown Sarasota — improvements to Selby Five Points Park, assisting businesses during the summer construction projects and sprucing up the streets with new landscaping.

But, for the most part, those meetings don’t garner many attendees.

One issue, though, brought out three to four times as many residents as normal to the Aug. 10 DID meeting — the homeless, specifically ridding them from the park.

“What we essentially have is a homeless park,” said downtown resident Ron McCullough. “We have a homeless park that drives people from downtown.”

The DID board was involved in a long debate about how to take back Selby Five Points Park from the transients who hang out there day and night.

One of the many reasons the homeless are attracted to the park is that some groups give them free food there.

The city of Orlando just won a court case that affirmed its right to deny daily feedings in one of its parks.

The sponsor of most of Orlando’s park feedings is Food Not Bombs, which also conducts homeless feedings in Selby Five Points Park.

More than 100 transients would gather at Lake Eola Park to get free food, so Orlando created an ordinance that required permits for any feedings that attracted more than 25 people; only two permits can be granted per year for any one park.

Food Not Bombs sued Orlando, claiming the ordinance violated its First Amendment rights to assembly and free speech. The free speech, it said, was its message that everyone has a right to eat.

A lower court ruled in favor of the activist group in 2008, but an appellate court decision last month came out in favor of Orlando.

DID board members asked the City Attorney Robert Fournier to review that case and offer an opinion whether a similar ordinance in Sarasota was feasible.

The city of Sarasota requires a permit if more than 75 people gather in a public place. Fournier said the appeals court ruling could allow the city to lower that number if the City Commission requested it.

Many downtown residents and business owners clearly want something done.

“The biggest problem is behavioral — profanity, drinking, drug use,” said John Anderson, owner of Mozaic restaurant. “(Problem homeless) are going to leave if there’s more family activity in the park.”

That is part of the goal of the park improvements the DID is funding, which will be complete by November.

Fournier believes its would be difficult to write an effective law outlawing homeless feedings.

“To create an ordinance, there has to be a documented problem from the feedings,” said Fournier. “Then you have to prove that the ordinance would cure that problem.”

The city attorney said it could be difficult on both fronts.

Orlando argued that its feedings created a litter problem.

But Lt. Randy Boyd, of the Sarasota Police Department, said Food Not Bombs members are “perfect tenants,” because they clean up after themselves and never exceed the 75-person limit.

“It’s not the feeding that’s causing the problem,” said Boyd. “It’s not just one thing.”

City Manager Bob Bartolotta does not favor an anti-feeding ordinance.

“I think it’s the last stop, instead of the first stop,” he said.

The city manager said he prefers to get community leaders — residents, business owners, homeless advocates, police — together for a series of meetings to try to come up with a reasonable solution that everyone advocates.

The Downtown Sarasota Alliance and Downtown Sarasota Condo Association have begun to do just that and plan to bring to Sarasota authorities from other parts of the country who have successfully dealt with problem homeless.

One business owner, though, wants to see less talk and more action.

Eileen Wallace, owner of Write On and More, said there appears to be more homeless than ever downtown and that one seasonal resident told her she would not be coming back to Sarasota as a result.

“It’s gotten to the point where we have to do something, not just sit around a table and talk,” she said.

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