Feeding the homeless: Act of charity or a crime?



FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Despite being charged with violating a new law by feeding the homeless in South Florida, 90-year-old Arnold Abbott said he’s not deterred and even went back out to serve more food at a public park.

The face off in Fort Lauderdale over the ordinance restricting public feeding of the homeless has pitted those with compassionate aims against residents and businesses trying to protect their neighborhoods.

Abbott, affectionately known as “Chef Arnold,” and two South Florida ministers were charged last weekend as they handed out food. They were accused of breaking the ordinance and each faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

“One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” Abbott said.

But on Wednesday night, Abbott and others served a four-course meal by the beach as police filmed from a distance and a crowd of nearly 100 mostly homeless and volunteers cheered their arrival.

“God bless you, Arnold!” some shouted. Others from the church carried signs in support of Abbott, saying the ordinance was violating their right to love thy neighbor.

Abbott, a World War II veteran and civil rights activist, told The Associated Press that he has been serving the homeless for more than two decades in honor of his late wife. He has several programs, including a culinary school to train the homeless he serves and help find them jobs in local kitchens.

With tears in her eyes, Rosemarie Servoky broke through the crowd Wednesday night to hug Abbott. Servoky, 68 and a graduate of Arnold’s culinary program from several years ago, said he saved her life.

“I was a crack addict. I was in a homeless shelter,” said Servoky, who contacted the mayor to complain about the new law.

Fort Lauderdale is the latest U.S. city to pass restrictions on feeding homeless people in public places. Advocates for the homeless say the cities are fighting to control increasing homeless populations but that simply passing ordinances doesn’t work because they don’t address the root causes.

In the past two years, more than 30 cities have tried to introduce laws similar to Fort Lauderdale’s, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. The efforts come as more veterans face homelessness and after two harsh winters drove homeless people south, especially to Florida.

Mayor Jack Seiler said he thinks Abbott and pastors Dwayne Black and Mark Sims have good intentions, but the city can’t discriminate in enforcing the law. He said it was passed to ensure that public places are open to everyone. He also stressed that the city was working with local charities to help serve the homeless through indoor feedings and programs that get them medical care and long-term help.

“The parks have just been overrun and were inaccessible to locals and businesses,” Seiler said.

Black criticized the city for pushing the proposed ordinance to the back of the agenda last week. Many supporters left by the time it came up for discussion, long after midnight. Black said he knew there was a good chance he would be arrested Wednesday night, but he wanted to be there to “reopen the discussion on this ordinance.”

Police said the men were not taken into custody and were given notices to appear in court, where the matter will be decided by a judge.

Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance took effect Friday, and the city passed a slew of laws addressing homelessness in recent months. They ban people from leaving their belongings unattended, outlaw panhandling at medians and strengthen defecation and urination laws, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“I’ve never seen a city pass so many laws in such a short period of time,” said Stoops, who testified at a City Council hearing on the issue.

Other cities are conducting routine homeless sweeps while some have launched anti-panhandling campaigns, according to the coalition. And many laws continue to target public feedings.

In Houston, groups need written consent to feed the homeless in public, or they face a $2,000 fine. Organizations in Columbia, South Carolina, must pay $150 for a permit more than two weeks in advance to feed the homeless in city parks.

In Orlando, an ordinance requires groups to get a permit to feed 25 or more people in parks in a downtown district. Groups are limited to two permits per year for each park. Since then, numerous activists have been arrested for violating the law.

They’ve drawn national attention, with some focusing on the contrast between the vacation destination of the Orlando area and the poverty in its surrounding cities.

“There’s a battle going on between the interest of economic development and tourism verses the needs of homeless individuals and the groups that serve them,” Stoops said.

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