Outside Stranahan Park in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the homeless sit on the sidewalk. On Sunday afternoon, 90-year-old Arnold Abbott prepared some 300 lunches to give them — a way for him to “love thy neighbor,” he said. And about three meals into his giveaway, local police ordered him to stop, as he knew they would.
Bystanders shouted at officers: “Shame on you!”
“One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” he told WPLG-TV Local 10. It was essentially an act of civil disobedience. Abbott runs a nonprofit organization called Love Thy Neighbor. He has been feeding the homeless in Fort Lauderdale for more than 20 years and says he’s not going to stop now. “It’s man’s inhumanity to man is all it is.”
Abbott and two local pastors were arrested Sunday and charged with violating a new ordinance passed last month that restricts charitable groups from passing out food to homeless people in public. They face a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.
It’s the fifth ordinance passed in Fort Lauderdale in the past six months that sets restrictions on the city’s homeless. In enacting the laws, Fort Lauderdale commissioners have cited “public health and safety,” saying the feeding restriction will protect the homeless population from potential illnesses. Opponents call the regulations “homeless hate laws.”
One of the ordinances allows authorities to seize a homeless person’s belongings and store them until the person agrees to pay a fee; another bans a homeless person from camping in public. The city has said that’s more about aesthetics, according to the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
When the new ordinance passed Oct. 22, opponents gathered outside the Fort Lauderdale Commission’s chamber, chanting: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands. Shame, shame, shame on [Mayor Jack] Seiler.” They continued: “Hey, Jack, what do you say? How many homeless did you starve today?”
The new ordinance states that indoor food sites cannot be within 500 feet or on the same block as one another. Outdoor stations cannot be within 500 feet of residences, and organizers must obtain a permit or get permission from the property owners as well as provide portable bathrooms on site.
“I have tried to abide by their regulations, but we just are not able to provide a port-a-potty,” Abbott told Fox News. “I believe that is the job of the municipality, anyway.”
Dwayne Black, pastor of the Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, and Mark Sims of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, Fla., were arrested along with Abbott, according to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. The three men must now appear in court to explain their actions.
“We believe very strongly that Jesus taught us that we are to feed his sheep,” Black told WPTV.
City officials contend the ordinance does not bar people from helping the hungry.
“The ordinance allows for legal, clean and safe distribution of food to the homeless,” Fort Lauderdale Police Department Detective DeAnna Greenlaw told Fox News. “For example, if a minister, priest or member of clergy wishes to provide food to the homeless at their establishment [such as a community hall, church or gathering place] they can do so if the proper facilities, as listed in the ordinance, are in place.”
In 1999, Abbott said he faced a similar situation when the city tried to stop him from feeding the needy on Fort Lauderdale Beach. He turned around and sued the city — and he won. He said he’s planning to do it again.
“I’m going to have to go to court again and sue the city of Fort Lauderdale — a beautiful city,” he told Local 10. “These are the poorest of the poor, they have nothing, they don’t have a roof over their heads. How do you turn them away?”
In less than two years, 21 cities have passed legislation restricting food-sharing, according to a survey published last month by the National Coalition for the Homeless. More than 10 other cities are reported to be doing the same.
“There are many myths and motivations that are frequently circulated regarding the issues of homelessness and food-sharing,” according to the report. “Food-sharing does not perpetuate homelessness. This perspective and other myths have led to at least 31 cities nationwide taking strides to restrict or ban the act of food-sharing.”
Abbott said Fort Lauderdale’s restrictions won’t stop him.
“I don’t do things to purposefully aggravate the situation,” he told Local 10. “I’m trying to work with the city. Any human has the right to help his fellow man.”
That’s why, he said, he’ll be on the beach Wednesday evening ready to serve Fort Lauderdale’s homeless once again.
“I know that I will be arrested again, and I am prepared for that,” he told Fox News. “I am my brother’s keeper, and what they are doing is just heartless.”