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Despite public criticism, Orlando passes ordinance banning people from blocking city sidewalks

Kevin Lichtenberg, an Orlandoan living unhoused and unsheltered, speaks against the city's new disorderly conduct ordinance, calling it "homeless profiling." The ordinance was passed at a City Council meeting inside Orlando City Hall on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. "All it's really going to do is address trying to disappear people like me," Lichtenberg said.
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Kevin Lichtenberg, an Orlandoan living unhoused and unsheltered, speaks against the city's new disorderly conduct ordinance, calling it "homeless profiling." The ordinance was passed at a City Council meeting inside Orlando City Hall on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. "All it's really going to do is address trying to disappear people like me," Lichtenberg said.

The Orlando City Council passed a new ordinance Monday afternoon, allowing police to arrest or fine anyone intentionally blocking public sidewalks.

Anyone who walks, stands, sits, lies, or places objects on the sidewalk, preventing people from walking through, could be found in violation, according to the ordinance. Under city code Section 1.08, violators could face fines of up to $500 or 60 days in jail, or both.

Ordinance No. 2023-55, Relating to Disorderly Conduct, states the purpose is to ensure pedestrian safety, citing that 8% of traffic-related deaths in Orlando involve pedestrians getting hit by cars when forced off sidewalks and onto the roads.

Yet city leaders said the ordinance would be used to protect locals and visitors from relentless solicitors and harassment, especially when walking late at night in downtown Orlando.

The ordinance passed 6 to 1, despite the nearly 20 public comments against it. Commissioner Bakari Burns of District 6 was the only dissenting vote.

Community members and advocates for people experiencing homelessness said the language in the law is vague, fearing it might be used to disproportionately target Orlandoans living unsheltered.

Critics say it's not clear enough

Martha Are, CEO of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, requested the Council review the law first before passing it, especially considering the ordinance will likely outlive the current city administration and could be used against people’s right to exist in peace.

“No community can arrest their way out of homelessness, and you now have a national reputation for engaging in effective solutions,” Are said. “We ask that the city review the ordinance with a careful lens and explore ways to ensure protection from unintended consequences, including risks to people who have increasingly limited options for where to lay their heads.”

Dr. Jenna Ferreira, a clinical pharmacist in Orlando, said the city should be using its time to figure out how to best help those who are vulnerable and lack resources, instead of attacking them.

“We must create solutions that address the problem at its core, that's ensuring living wages, that's ensuring access to health care, mental health care, housing, and community," Ferreira said. "This is a reactive ordinance. This does nothing to stop the cause.”

Proponents of the law said it is not aimed at people experiencing homelessness but at drunken and aggressive people congregating outside bars at night.

“If you try to walk by they call you names. I've been challenged,” Commissioner Patty Sheehan of District 4 said. “I shouldn't have to be afraid to walk in my own city.”

Sheehan said the ordinance is being turned into something other than what it is.

However, Commissioner Regina Hill of District 5 openly said she wants the ordinance to be applied to people camping out in the streets. She said someone who camps outside her home recently broke into her residence with a knife.

“Our lives are in danger,” Hill said. “They're laying there on the sidewalks every day, we can't do anything. And now I'm afraid to sleep at night.”

With city leaders citing different reasons for the new ordinance, and none citing the pedestrian safety concerns stated in the codified document, concerned Orlando residents urged the council to reconsider and more clearly state its intentions to avoid future abuses of power. Especially the law is contingent on intentionality, which is extremely difficult to prove.

“This language is extremely broad and gives police sole discretion to detain or find these individuals, in particular unhoused Orlandoans or unpermitted protests, for intentionally blocking the city sidewalks, which again is difficult to prove legally. While this ordinance is being considered our community faces a crisis in affordable housing,” another Orlando resident said.

The group represents dozens of state and local progressive activist groups. Attendees cried out for democracy rights and the reinstatement of former State Attorney Monique Morrell at a rally Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, outside Orlando City Hall.
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The group represents dozens of state and local progressive activist groups. Attendees blocked passage as they cried out for democracy rights and the reinstatement of former State Attorney Monique Morrell at a rally Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, outside Orlando City Hall.

Critics say it might be abused

Other community members argued about proving intention when it comes to people with mental health issues who may be unintentionally breaking the law. Public critiques against the ordinance also included the potential for discrimination and abuse against protesters.

“I will have you remember that Martin Luther King was someone who intentionally blocked roads and blocked sidewalks,” District 6 Resident Robert Quiñones said, referencing the mayor’s proclamation on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Holiday Week earlier in the meeting.

The city council insisted the ordinance was not created to attack anyone who isn’t purposely harassing locals and visitors. Mayor Buddy Dyer reminded the public that the city already has several laws banning loitering and encampments.

But Kevin Lichtenberg, who lives in Orlando and is unhoused, called the new ordinance “homeless profiling.” He said the new law will serve only to profit the state and private incarceration systems.

“Dealing with drunk people is no reason to pass this ordinance, especially when the lawmaker has already said that every single thing is already an existing law. There's already a law for it,” Lichtenberg said. “All it's really going to do is address trying to disappear people like me.”

As of Dec. 2022, Florida ranked third highest in the nation for its incarceration rate, according to Statista. The Prison Policy Initiative reported Florida to rank first in 2021. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2021, Florida held the largest population in private prisons, including the most people under 17 years of age and second most non-U.S. citizens.

Critics of the ordinance fear the effects of this new law will merely increase unnecessary interactions with the police, leaving unhouse people, who are already vulnerable, open to sanctioned police violence.

The Orlando City Council agreed to discuss a report of the law's effects in three to six months. The city of Altamonte Springs recently passed a similar ordinance.

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Community members and advocates for people experiencing homelessness fear the new "disorderly conduct" ordinance will be used to disproportionately target unsheltered residents. Nearly 20 public comments spoke against the new law at the City Council meeting inside Orlando City Hall on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. Commissioner Bakari Burns of District 6 was the only dissenting vote.

Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the wrong dollar amount for violation fines. Under city code Section 1.08, anyone found in violation of the ordinance could face fines of up to $500 or 60 days in jail, or both.

Lillian (Lilly) Hernández Caraballo is a bilingual, multimedia journalist covering housing and homelessness for WMFE, as a Report for America corps member.
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