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Court says Orlando can restrict homeless feedings

ORLANDO, Fla. — A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that it's OK for Orlando to restrict the group feedings that have brought dozens of homeless people to the city's Lake Eola Park.

In a case watched by cities and homeless advocates across the country, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed a 2008 ruling by a federal judge in Orlando who believed the city's rules were unconstitutional.

"We won on every single point. It's a complete vindication for the city," said City Attorney Mayanne Downs. "The point here was to protect Lake Eola Park. It's a very important part of our city's heritage and history, and all we wanted to do was to protect it from an unfair burden."

Advocates have continued to serve meals to large groups of homeless and needy people at Lake Eola Park since U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell ordered City Hall to stop enforcing its ordinance. In fact, in the nearly two years since his ruling, the regular feedings at Lake Eola have grown substantially, city officials say.

"Over 100 people have been gathering at the park every day, and it's really becoming a problem," said Commissioner Patty Sheehan, whose district includes the iconic downtown park. "It's gotten to the point where people are telling me they are no longer going to take their families to the park anymore."


The ruling clears the way for the city to begin enforcing its ordinance again, effectively putting an end to the feedings or at least forcing them to move elsewhere. However, no decision has been made by the city about enforcement.

The rules require advocates to obtain a permit for feedings of 25 or more people, and only two feedings a year are allowed in a given park. The City Council adopted the ordinance in 2006 after businesses and residents downtown complained that the feedings drew crowds of vagrants who caused problems outside the park.

A loose-knit group of activists called Orlando Food Not Bombs argued that the regulations hampered its ability to spread its message that food is a right to all. Likewise, First Vagabonds Church of God claimed its freedom to worship by sharing food was trampled.

But the appellate court sided with the city on every issue, ruling that the ordinance is reasonable and does not infringe on constitutional rights.

"An objective reasonable observer would not know whether the group feeding was a family having a reunion, a church intending to engage in a purely charitable act, a restaurant distributing surplus food for free instead of throwing it away, or an organization trying to engage in a form of political speech," Judge J.L. Edmondson wrote on behalf of a unanimous three-judge panel of the appellate court.

Even so, the issue has been a flashpoint in Orlando for several years, and Tuesday's ruling isn't expected to settle the matter.

Attorney Jacqueline Dowd, who represents Orlando Food Not Bombs, said the group would most likely look for a way to continue to feed the less fortunate.

"They have not missed a Wednesday in about five years. My sense is the individuals who have devoted that kind of time and effort are determined to do it one way or another," she said. "They have adjusted before to cope with legal requirements, and I would expect them to cope again. But my sense is they will not stop."


The homeless advocates have 20 days to ask for a re-hearing before the 11th Circuit's full court.

The appeal cost Orlando about $40,000. If the ruling stands, the city will avoid paying $323,000 in legal costs requested by attorneys for the homeless advocates.

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