Park gatherers beware: condo residents surrounding Selby Five Points Park in the heart of downtown Sarasota have been circulating a petition to limit the number of people allowed to gather on park property without a permit to twelve people. Apart from cutting children’s birthday parties to a lame number of family members, the proposed policy would prevent volunteer organizations from homeless feedings and could lead to devastating consequences like that of Orlando.
In 2007 the Orlando Sentinel reported a member of the Food Not Bombs group, Eric Montanez, was arrested after serving stew to a group of 30 homeless people gathered at Lake Eola Park. After writing up the incident, police collected a vial of stew as evidence.
Montanez’s crime fell under the jurisdiction of Orlando’s 2006 city-wide ordinance limiting the number of people permitted to gather at any city park without a permit to 25 persons. Only two permits can be granted a year for large group feedings. After complaints from business owners and residents surrounding the park, the city instilled the ordinance to quash the regular homeless feedings held by non-profit groups such as Food Not Bombs and the First Vagabonds Church of God.
In response to the arrest Food Not Bombs sued the city of Orlando, declaring the ordinance to be unconstitutional under their right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. A court ruled in favor of the group in 2008 but the decision was overturned by an appellate court.
Sarasota could be in for a similar situation due to a recent petition. According to the Sarasota Observer, a petition started by a local condo owner and radio talk show host Phil Grande, seeks to limit the amount of people who can gather in Sarasota’s city parks with the ultimate goal of ending the homeless feedings often conducted by New College’s Food Not Bombs chapter.
Though the current limit of people allowed to gather on Sarasota property without a permit is 75, Grande would like to cut that number down to 12 — an even smaller amount than Orlando’s law.
Grande declined an interview though in an email to the Catalyst, Sr. Executive Producer of the Phil’s Gang talk show, Thomas Biggs, said the following:
“Phil’s opinion is that the New College students & faculty have a strong bias opinion regarding the homeless & feeding the homeless. I want to be very clear, in no way is Phil trying to push homeless away or out of the down town Sarasota area. Phil is working very hard with police & community leaders to brining to light, the over-looked problems of homeless effecting downtown businesses.
“Plus the lack of regulations forced on the Food for Bombs folks – who are not serving at designated locations & not serving properly prepared meals. I would refer you to the cities of Houston and Orlando who have regulations for feeding the homeless.”
“The college students don’t care about the homeless. They just want to push their anti-war agenda,” said Grande in an interview with the Observer.
Although Grande declined an interview, first-year Dan Monhollon of Food Not Bombs was able to describe an encounter had with the petitioner at Selby Five Points Park on the group’s weekly park dinner. Monhollon claimed Grande approached him after walking back from the park to the group’s car to grab an extra dish.
“He [Grande] started off with, ‘What’s that “bombs” part? Why are you saying “not bombs”?’ And I [said] ‘That’s the name of the national organization. It started off as a no-nukes thing but now we’re just serving food.’ And he’s like, ‘No this is some anti-war thing … you just want to make your point by using these people.”
“I just think that’s funny, because we never really talk about anti-war stuff when we talk to the [people at the] park,” fourth-year Food Not Bombs member Sarah “Bucci” Iacobucci responded. “We just share food. Most of the time whenever I do talk about politics with the people down there it’s people bringing it up to us … We don’t bring pamphlets or anything it’s just food.”
“From what it sounds like right now it’s just a petition,” continued Iacobucci. “So I’m not sure if it’s gotten to the stage of presenting it to the city as a law to be passed, but if it gets to that stage … I’m sure we’ve talked about wanting to stage some sort of protest or hand out information downtown about Food Not Bombs and what we do, that sort of thing. And I mean Food Not Bombs has a lot of lawyers, so if we got into any trouble they could help us out … I feel like we’ve got a really dedicated corps of people that are willing to stand up for Food Not Bombs in Sarasota.”
Recently the City Commission approved a smoking ban on all Sarasota city parks in efforts to rid the parks of “criminal vagrants.” Board members also recommended spreading out groups of benches at Five Points Park, removing three to be put elsewhere in the downtown area.
“They’ve been telling the homeless to go to Centennial Park which is further away and no one goes to,” said Iacobucci. “They don’t care if you go to Centennial Park because they’re not really going to be mixed with the downtown tourist scene.”
Information in this article is courtesy of the orlandosentinel.com, yourobserver.com, courthousenews.com, cfnews13.com.