"I drank too much in Puerto Rico," Roberto confesses through a near-toothless grin. It's Friday night in downtown Orlando, and Roberto is one of five panhandlers crammed into the 3-by-15-foot "panhandling box" in front of a tattoo parlor on Orange Avenue and Central Boulevard.
It's a little after 10 p.m., and for his several hours of work, Roberto has only four quarters in his Styrofoam cup. Every time someone passes by, he quickly breaks from his conversation to ask for change. And he's ignored.
Roberto says he's sober now, but the straight-and-narrow may have come too late. He says he has liver cancer and expects to die within a few months. The disability checks cover his rent at a hotel; for food, he relies on begging.
Ten feet from him lies Bob, passed out in the alcove of a former nightclub. Except for the occasional finger-pointer, everyone -- even the half-dozen Orlando police officers across the street -- ignores him.
Then there's Jim, a thickly bearded man bumming cigarettes off nearby smokers. He's not a panhandler, he says, he's just homeless.
It's a congregation of paupers, forced together by a recent city ordinance that bans begging anywhere outside of the dotted blue lines painted on the sidewalk on this spot and at 24 other locations concentrated downtown. Passed last summer at the behest of downtown merchants, the first-of-its-kind law was meant to help revitalization by pushing undesirables out of the way.
Ask city officials, and they'll say the unchallenged law is doing its job. Business owners, except for those with blue lines painted in front of their stores; scenesters who don't want to be hassled; even the panhandlers who the cops now leave alone -- everyone supposedly loves it.
Except the panhandlers don't. Over a half-hour, this blue box fills up -- though their cups won't. Competition on this Friday night has decimated their already modest takings. Roberto probably will go home hungry tonight.
"It's not right," he mutters as another couple walks by, pretending he doesn't exist.
Several weeks ago, Mayor Glenda Hood was panhandled as she walked down Orange Avenue. She complained to cops, who investigated and found the panhandlers inside the blue boxes.
The mayor's disdain for vagrants isn't a secret. Last June, she announced to the City Council that downtown had "image issues" that needed to be addressed -- namely, panhandlers, nightclub solicitors and tattoo shops. As the mayor's vision for a booming arts-and-retail downtown struggled to come into focus, it was easy to point fingers at the disadvantaged.
City attorneys Scott Gabrielson and Ken Herbert crafted an unprecedented ordinance creating the panhandling zones. (The city thought it was doing panhandlers a favor by getting rid of the previous requirement that they be licensed and carry photo IDs.) To date, Herbert says, the new ordinance actually has decreased the number of panhandling arrests in downtown.
"It gives the panhandling situation back to the citizens," he says of the law's effects, "not to the panhandlers."
As an added bonus for Hood, what Herbert deems the "secondary effect" may be running the panhandlers out of town -- something the city cannot explicitly do by ordinance. He compares it to airports' regulation of Hare Krishnas two decades ago: when they were put in kiosks, they didn't make as much money and went away. "If, in fact, panhandlers say that's not their preferred method [to stay in the boxes], they may go someplace where it's not illegal to follow someone around," he says.
So far, no legal challenge has materialized. Though courts hold free speech -- and panhandling is considered speech -- above the right not to be hassled, the city is confident that it created enough zones to convince a judge that it was regulating, not banning, the panhandlers.
"I haven't had anyone come to me with these cases," says attorney Howard Marks, an ardent First Amendment defender who believes the law is unconstitutional. "I have not heard about any arrests."
Unlike Marks, the American Civil Liberties Union thinks any legal challenge would be a loser. In Fort Lauderdale, the ACLU sued to void a no-begging zone near the tourist-rich beach, but the courts ruled that the "public interest" of the safe zone outweighed the right to panhandle. The ACLU lost its appeal, and decided against taking the case to the Supreme Court.
The decision to arrest a panhandler, says OPD spokesman Sgt. Orlando Rolon, is discretionary. "If [police officers] know [they] have a habitual offender," he says, "they more likely will get arrested."
From September to December, there were 22 arrests. Typically, violators face a $250 fine. Says Marks: "It's really a simplistic and ignorant approach [to the homeless problem]."
A Monday night finds the streets deserted and Bob sober. He and a new face, Bill, are back on Orange and Central. Not surprisingly, their cups are empty.
It wasn't always like this, he says. When the city issued panhandling licenses, there were only a few competitors. Now, since anyone can man the zones, dozens of panhandlers cram into the best spots, which include this one and the two along the pedestrian-heavy Church Street corridor.; ;
The city may have 25 zones, he adds, but most are in out-of-the-way locales. For example, the two outside the T.D. Waterhouse Centre: "People walk so fast to get into the game," Bob says, "they don't even see you."; ;
So even on a slow night, this box fills up with as many as five panhandlers at a time. Not that they made any money -- Bob lands a sandwich off one young woman; the rest score a few smokes.; ;
The best nights, they say, are Thursday through Sunday after 10 p.m., when the bars fill up. The previous weekend, Bob says, some drunk college kids gave him $13 and a mixed drink, the week's prize. Some nights, the intoxicated will drop $20 in every cup -- but that's rare. Usually, even the generous only give a buck, maybe two, so one guy will win out over the rest.
And if a guy pulls up in a wheelchair, it's all over for the rest.
"Do you know why I'm sitting like this?" says Bob, cross-legged on the concrete with his head bowed slightly. "Because if I stand, people get intimidated and I make less money. That's something I learned."
They've also taken their share of heat from the cops. Both Jim and Bob have been arrested under the city's much-maligned no-camping ordinance (which Gabrielson says cleared the appellate court and is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court), which aims to attack homelessness by barring people from "camping" on city benches or streets. Both charges, they say, were dropped, but they still were stuck with $160 court costs.
And if they take so much as one step outside the boxes, OPD will arrest them. Fining a homeless man $250, they agree, is just plain silly. "If I had that kind of money," Bob says, "I wouldn't be panhandling. I'm a drunk, but I'm a drunk because I live in the bushes. If I had a job, I wouldn't be a drunk."
"Is it working? What does that mean?" Herbert asks. In terms of confining panhandlers to boxes, he says, yes, it works.
"People who are familiar with downtown," says Hood spokeswoman Susan Blexrud, "know where the panhandling zones are. You can walk on the city streets without being accosted. I know I do."
"Our problem was the number of people complaining to us [about panhandlers]," says police Sgt. Rolon. "The complaints have declined tremendously -- they're almost nonexistent."
"The more passive panhandlers," adds Gabrielson, "have located in the zones. The more aggressive people -- the ones who would follow you around -- they seem to be panhandling somewhere else."
But there were always laws against aggressive panhandling, Marks points out. "The city is just trying to sweep the issue under the rug," he says. "They're trying to pretend that we do not have the homeless in Central Florida. I don't necessarily have the answer: You have to balance the rights of citizens, but you can't trample constitutional rights. We have homeless individuals that need assistance."
The city of Orlando gives nearly $1 million to agencies that help the homeless, Blexrud says, including the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida and the Salvation Army. But it gives that money with the intention of keeping them in their designated place; when the city was sued over the no-camping ordinance, it argued that because the Coalition's shelter always had vacancies, there was no reason for anyone to stay on the streets. But panhandlers say the shelter is a place where neither they nor their meager possessions are safe.
"With a lot of the people out on the street," says Coalition president Robert Brown, "there are mental-health issues -- including paranoia. The experience is, the [shelter] isn't a very dangerous place to be. It's certainly safer than being on the street."
The Coalition supports the panhandling crackdown -- not all panhandlers are homeless, Brown says -- and wishes it would go further. "We don't advocate that anybody give money to people on the street," he says, "[because] most of them have drug or alcohol-abuse problems, and giving money to them doesn't help solve the problem."
Of course, it also costs money to stay in the Coalition's shelter. And to eat. And if you don't have it, you've still got to get it somewhere.
But the city's making it harder and harder to get here.