Protesting an attack on Gainesville’s homeless

June 1, 2011

GAINESVILLE, Fla.--This city is famous for two things: The extremist Terry Jones' Koran burning and its cruelty to the homeless. The latter continues to disgrace Gainesville due to the inaction of its supposedly progressive City Commission.

Two years ago, the city started enforcing an ordinance that limits the number of meals that St. Francis House (SFH), the primary local soup kitchen, can serve each day. According to a comprehensive survey from January of this year, homelessness in Alachua County has increased 38 percent since last year. In a city where more than one in three people live below the poverty line, not only do the homeless benefit from the services of the SFH, but many of the city's working poor also find them necessary to get by.

Despite this, SFH is allowed to serve only 130 meals before it must close its doors on a mass of still hungry people. If the ordinance is not strictly followed, the soup kitchen risks having its permit revoked and its operations halted.

After various attempts by community members failed to effectively contest the ordinance, the Gainesville branch of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) called for the formation of the Coalition to End the Meal Limit Now last December. Since its founding, the Coalition has brought this unjust ordinance into the local and national spotlight. Composed of over 16 local and national groups, the Coalition petitioned, rallied and protested on an escalating scale for the repeal of the meal limit.

Recently, the St. Francis House submitted a petition to the City Commission which would change the numerical meal limit to a three-hour time frame in which meals could be served. According to SFH Director Kent Vann, this time frame would allow all the hungry to be fed, which he estimates would easily reach 275 people or more daily.

As it stands, there is no evidence that the meal limit has any positive effects. "The only thing that this meal limit has successfully accomplished is starving more people everyday, the working poor and the homeless," says Lauren Byers, a member of the Coalition and the Gainesville ISO.

Tasked with investigating the repercussions of the time frame petition, the City Planning Board eventually unanimously recommended that it be approved. Yet the City Commission refuses to act on this recommendation, citing supposed support for the meal limit among nearby residents and businesses.

With this, the Coalition began gathering petitions and speaking to hundreds of downtown residents and businesses, ultimately exposing the myth propagated by the City Commission as false. If the entire community opposes the meal limit, why would the Commission refuse to repeal it?

The truth is that a few downtown developers hold much more sway over the City Commission than the electorate. Perceiving this, the Coalition organized successful pickets in April and May against Ken McGurn and Nathan Collier, two influential Gainesville property owners, and challenged their disproportionate power over the Commission.

Though it was the threats of one of the developers that resulted in the enforcement of the meal limit in the first place, the Commission predictably denies any connection to the developers. The reactionary views of these magnates seem to know no bounds--McGurn even went so far as to call the homeless "crooks, criminals and rapists," while Collier refers to them as "vagrants" and the downtown plaza as a "DMZ" [demilitarized zone].

While the city continues to stall, support for the Coalition is only increasing. Pressure is building as the Coalition organizes downtown neighborhoods through petitions and other means, lending it credibility within the Gainesville community.

Definitive action by the City Commission, which could lift the limit at any time with a simple vote, is long overdue. Armed with the facts and the support of the community, the Coalition will continue to fight the meal limit until it is finally repealed.

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