Late one afternoon this summer in Lake Eola Park, Keith McHenry got arrested — again — for trying to serve free food in public. While his compatriots were setting up a vegan meal of vegetable stir-fry, ears of corn, and potatoes donated from a local natural-food store, McHenry was on his hands and knees, using a fat marker to outline text on a large banner: "End the Criminalization of Poverty."
Lake Eola is the crown jewel of downtown Orlando. The park's fountain shimmers at the middle of the resplendent lake. Music plays through speakers mounted out of reach, and swan boats rest in view of offices and shiny new condominiums. Nearby signs warn that it is illegal to "lie or otherwise be in a horizontal position on park benches" or to "sleep or remain in any bushes, shrubs or foliage." Not a friendly place for a man who has staked half his life on drawing attention to the barriers between the rich and the poor.
McHenry, 54, had written to the end of Criminalization when a police officer stepped up behind him with a pair of handcuffs. McHenry was used to the drill at this point: Since he helped found the international Food Not Bombs movement with an antiwar bake sale in Harvard Square in 1980, he's counted 150 arrests. "Almost every single arrest has been related to Food Not Bombs," he says. Among his guiding principles: Feed "everyone without restriction, rich or poor, stoned or sober."
Now, on Wednesday, June 1 — just as scores of homeless people were due to start streaming into the park, as they had done every week since 2005 — McHenry acquiesced as usual, going off to spend 32 hours in the Orange County jail alongside two organizers of the Orlando chapter of Food Not Bombs. They were bailed out the next day, but the following week, they returned to defy the law again and share food with 50, maybe 60 people. The police came back too. During June, 25 volunteers with Food Not Bombs would be arrested at the park (although the charges were later dropped).
The second time McHenry was arrested in Lake Eola Park, on June 22, he spent 17 days in jail. The judge, not sympathetic to his cause, called him a "professional protester."
The reason for the arrests? For years, residents near the park had complained that after the meals, homeless people dispersed into their neighborhoods. In 2008, the City Commission passed an ordinance that outlawed the serving of food to more than 25 people at a time without a permit. The ordinance stipulated that a group could serve only twice in each park. Mayor John Hugh "Buddy" Dyer said the ordinance was intended "to be fair to individual neighborhoods" by diluting the presence of homeless people in the city's open spaces.
The Orlando Food Not Bombs chapter, along with the First Vagabonds Church of God (which has a mostly homeless congregation), challenged the law in court, but a judge in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in April of this year to uphold it.
McHenry says other groups that traditionally feed the homeless — churches, nonprofits, and county-run agencies — provide only a simple palliative to those who are stuck in the routines of poverty. They assume that "there's nothing wrong with the way everything is," says McHenry, "that it's just that these individuals have failed, and now they need this food, and [the charities are] doing a good deed by serving it." But Food Not Bombs takes a less amenable stance. When its volunteers serve food, they're preaching not about Jesus but about the fact that the whole damned system that made these people homeless is broken, broken and pathetic, and that as long as "50 cents of every dollar is going to the military," as McHenry puts it, nobody should be denied the human right of sustenance in quiet complacence. Hence the banner.
In Fort Lauderdale, a scene similar to Orlando's plays out in Stranahan Park, at the exact center of the city, adjacent to the main library at Broward Boulevard and Andrews Avenue. On any given day, homeless drifters can be found catching a nap on the grass, bumming a smoke, or conversing in the shadow of commerce. Here, every Friday at 5:30 (give or take), the Fort Lauderdale chapter of Food Not Bombs shares a meal with these people under a gazebo. Other groups, mostly small ministries, also distribute food here.
But if city officials have their way, Fort Lauderdale could be the next municipality to enact an ordinance like Orlando's, banishing mass feedings from the city's parks and beaches. The City Attorney's Office is currently researching case law to try to prevent these food sharings in public and confine them to a more secluded spot, safely out of sight of homes and businesses.