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After 90-year-old is arrested, Florida judge halts law that restricts feeding the homeless

Ninety-year-old Arnold Abbott has fed the homeless for two decades in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and is vowing to continue his charity despite being cited for violating a city ordinance that restricts feeding the homeless in certain public spaces. (Video: Reuters)
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It is no longer illegal to feed the homeless in Fort Lauderdale. For now, anyway.

On Tuesday, a Florida circuit court judge temporarily halted a controversial ordinance that restricts charities from feeding the homeless in public. The ruling arrived several days after the most recent arrest of Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old World War II veteran who has for years run a nonprofit devoted to feeding the city’s homeless population.

Abbott’s first citation occurred in a local park on Nov. 2 after police ordered him to “Drop that plate right now,” according to MSN.  Abbott continued to violate the feeding ban, the article added, racking up four more citations, each carrying a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail. A court hearing for the initial infraction was scheduled for today.

“We’re elated the judge has entered the stay,” John David, Abbott’s attorney told the Sun Sentinel.

Abbott seemed to have public opinion on his side. For starters, his fight was featured on the Colbert Report last month.

“I say if the homeless want to eat they should do it in the privacy of wherever those people live,” Colbert sarcastically chimed.

This weekend, around 100 demonstrators pooled outside Fort Lauderdale’s federal courthouse to protest the ordinance. The group marched several blocks and served pizza to members of the city’s homeless community, according to NBC 6.

“The reason we’re not going to back down is because it’s so unjust to put people in jail for helping other people,” Rabbi Barry Silver told the station.

More recently, he was personally singled out by the hacktivist group Anonymous. On Monday, the group brought down the city’s Web site and e-mail on Monday and interfered with several other sites associated with city government using a denial-of-service attack, according to Russia Today. In a video posted online before the attack, the group gave Mayor Jack Seiler 24 hours to lift the ordinance.

“I’ve had calls from Moscow and Syria,” Abbott told the Sentinel after arrest number two. “The phone is ringing every 15 seconds.”

The law, which took effect Oct. 31, limits the location of homeless feeding sites and requires that they offer bathroom facilities, hand-washing stations and food at particular temperatures. Broward County Circuit Judge Thomas Lynch instructed all sides to enter into mediation during a 30-day window when the city will be prohibited from enforcing the ordinance, the Sentinel reported.  The Rev. Mark Sims, a longtime homeless advocate, told the paper that the judge’s decision will help each side find common ground.

“I’m very pleased,” he said. “I think it’s a great first step for the city to sit down with a more varied group of people to work out a plan so we can provide food for everyone who is hungry in the city, not just those who are in the large shelters.”

Supporters of the ordinance point out that their law is not unlike others in cities across the country. In a column last month, Fred Grimm of the Miami Herald noted that while Abbott has been painted by supporters as a martyr, the park where he was arrested early last month has been transformed over time.

“Over the last few years, the plaza had become another encampment,” he wrote. “Nearby merchants and parents escorting their children through an intimidating gauntlet to the library entrance raised the usual complaints — public drunkenness, public defecation, public urination, fights, drug dealing, piles of litter, a god-awful smell.”

Though the judge’s decision comes as a blow to the mayor’s office, different elements of the city’s government may find relief in the law’s temporary prohibition. Nicki Grossman, president of the Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, urged city officials to do something about the wave of negative press, the Sentinel reported.

“It is not pleasant getting e-mails from people saying we’re not coming to your city because you have no heart,” she told the paper.