The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How fatal bureaucracy starts

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On Sunday afternoon, police in Fort Lauderdale, Florida cited several people for violating a new city ordinance which restricts feeding the homeless without a permit. Among them were two pastors and a 90-year-old man who has been running a charity to help the homeless for more than two decades.

According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel:

Arnold Abbott, who heads the group Love Thy Neighbor, said he had served only three or four of about 300 meals he had prepared when police ordered him to stop
Abbott, the Rev. Mark Sims, of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, and the Rev. Dwayne Black, pastor of The Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, were each cited for willfully violating a city ordinance. Police issued them notices to appear in court, where they could be asked to explain their actions.
The ordinance, approved by the city commission Oct. 22, is one of several recent efforts by officials to crack down on the city’s burgeoning downtown homeless population.
The latest law, which took effect Friday, limits where outdoor feeding sites can be located, requires the permission of property owners and says the groups have to provide portable toilets.

Presumably, explaining their actions is going to include a lot of “do unto others” and nice things like that. Unfortunately, they face up to 60 days and a $500 fine for their charitable mischief.

Florida has hosted this kind of controversy in the past. In June 2011 in Orlando, three members of the charity Food Not Bombs were arrested for passing out food in the park. And according to a homeless advocacy group, at least 21 cities have put into place restrictions on feeding the homeless since the start of 2013. At least ten others are considering it. The American Civil Liberties Union has fought and continues to fight similar bans all over the country.

This is how fatal bureaucracy comes in — not with a bang, or a whimper, but as a silent, multi-tentacled monster in response to neighborhood complaints. Critics of more laissez-faire policies who swear the homeless would starve or freeze without the hand of the state might look to Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Las Vegas, and other locations and see how kind the government can be to the downtrodden man.

And it’s not just about the vague desire to make sure the parks are shared, and the riff-raff is kept out. Draconian zoning laws also restrict the hand of kindness. Homeless shelters that don’t follow the law as written or which are perhaps more crowded during a deadly cold spell can face shutdowns. Last spring, authorities in Birmingham, Alabama used food truck license laws to stop a pastor from giving out water and food to the homeless. Occupational licensing rules and artificially high barrier to entry into should-be-basic careers also restrict poor people from improving their lot in life.

To point out the wrongness of citing a generous 90-year-old old and two religious people following the tenets of their beliefs more than most people do is not to say that there aren’t fair concerns about homeless individuals. 15 to 30 percent of them are mentally ill. We’ve all seen, and been frightened by someone in public who is not acting rationally. (Not that violating their civil liberties by confining them is a flawless plan, either.) It’s not a mystery why business owners would prefer such people to stay away, or why a parent might be overly concerned about seeing them in the park. But life isn’t easy, and neither are interactions with poor, mentally ill, or addicted humans, most of whom will do you no harm, and many of whom are sure to be polite, kind, and grateful for even a scrap of help. And with respect to policy — and contrary to the last three decades of the American experience in law and order hysteria — the correct response to every difficult situation is not to treat human beings like vermin, and not to outlaw charity sans proper permits.