Orleando Sentinel
Arrest is first under homeless-feeding law
Sat Apr 14, 2007 02:18

Arrest is first under homeless-feeding law

Willoughby Mariano | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted April 5, 2007

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Arrested (RAYMA JENKINS, SPECIAL TO THE SENTINEL)
Apr 4, 2007
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Eric Montanez
Apr 4, 2007

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A long-simmering dispute between homeless advocates and Orlando officials intensified Wednesday with the arrest of an activist feeding transients in Lake Eola Park downtown.

Eric Montanez, 21, is the first to be arrested under the city's controversial ordinance that bars feeding large groups of people in downtown parks without a special permit.

The rule was approved last summer after residents and businesses in Orlando's gentrifying downtown complained that parks were being used as soup kitchens.

The arrest enraged volunteers, who said it was proof that the city cares little for its neediest residents.

"Police are arresting people for feeding the homeless," local ACLU President George Crossley said. "This has been a truly disgusting day."

Calls to Mayor Buddy Dyer and a city spokeswoman were not returned. Police spokeswoman Sgt. Barbara Jones said the arrest was warranted.

"Our job is to enforce the rules," she said.

Homeless advocates and city officials have butted heads since the passage of the ordinance in July. The law bars groups from feeding more than 25 people without a special permit. Groups may have two permits per year.

The Central Florida ACLU filed suit in Orlando's U.S. District Court in October arguing the ordinance is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, activists skirted the rule by having several organizations host the weekly Lake Eola meals, and making sure no one group served more than 25 people.

Police kept close tabs, sometimes taking photos and ticketing volunteers' cars.

Jacqueline Dowd, lead counsel in the suit, said tensions seemed to ease last month when police said publicly that the ordinance would not be enforced until a court rules on its legality.

Montanez is one of the federal suit's plaintiffs, as is his group Orlando Food Not Bombs. Crossley and others expressed concern that police are being used to bully people who sue the city.

"This is absolutely an instance of intimidation," he said. "There's no question about it."

The arrest came about 5:15 p.m. Food Not Bombs, CodePink, an anti-war group, and the local Young Communist League fed 35 people rice, stew, salad and bread pudding.

Undercover officers filmed the food line, meticulously counting Montanez serving "30 unidentified persons food from a large pot utilizing a ladle," according to an arrest affidavit.

Police approached Montanez and asked for his identification. They considered issuing him a summons on the misdemeanor count, but when he tossed his ID, police took him into custody, the affidavit says.

Jonathan Giralt, 16, a Boone High School junior who was near Montanez, disagreed with the police account. He and other volunteers said the activist showed his ID and complied with police orders.

"I was like, OK, this guy [Montanez] is going to be arrested for absolutely nothing," Jonathan said. "It makes me feel unsafe."

Police also collected a vial of stew as evidence.

Montanez remained in the Orange County Jail late Wednesday with bail set at $250.

Willoughby Mariano can be reached at wmariano@orlandosentinel.com  or 407-420-5171.

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