South Florida's homeless feeding showdown

Homelessness | Taking care of the homeless has become a spotlight issue in mayoral election
by Daniel James Devine
Posted 2/10/15, 09:03 am

Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old man who wears a white chef’s jacket, has been filling the bellies of the homeless in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the past 24 years. His all-volunteer organization, Love Thy Neighbor, provides about 1,400 gourmet meals a week to the city’s homeless population.

The weekly feedings include an outdoor meal served next to the restrooms at Fort Lauderdale’s public beach. Last Wednesday evening, between 150 and 200 people showed up, Abbott said.

But now the city wants Abbott to take those meals elsewhere. Last year, Fort Lauderdale passed a new ordinance governing outdoor homeless feedings that requires charities to follow sanitary protocols and only serve meals in designated zones. Love Thy Neighbor’s feeding site on the beach has been specifically zoned out.

That rule has provoked a fight between Abbott and the city’s mayor, Jack Seiler, who is running for a third term today. Abbott has refused to obey the ordinance and claims it discriminates against the homeless and is aimed at getting them out of town.

“It’s the rich against the poor,” Abbott said Monday. “Equality—that’s all I’m asking for, is equality for the homeless.” He has been telling his homeless acquaintances to vote against the mayor.

But mayor says he just wants to keep the city and beach clean and offer the homeless more help than a quick meal. “We don’t ban feeding the homeless,” Seiler told me. “We want to … get them off the street to the programs that help them turn their lives around.”

The showdown has offered a vivid example of the conflict that can occur in communities where the homeless have a visible presence. More than 20 cities have passed laws restricting homeless feeding since 2013, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Four of those cities are in Florida, a popular retreat for the homeless when winter cold sweeps across the country.

The problem in Fort Lauderdale stemmed from complaints about homeless people littering, urinating, and defecating in public. As part of a crackdown, the city passed several ordinances that Seiler later said were meant to “reduce the public safety hazards and inappropriate nuisance activities that are negatively impacting our community.”

The new ordinances make it illegal to leave personal belongings unattended, to panhandle at medians, or to sleep on public property in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Other new rules require groups distributing food to the homeless outdoors to provide portable toilets and hand-washing stations, to have a certified food service manager onsite, and to only conduct feedings in approved zones. Groups must also keep 500 feet away from any resident’s home.

Seiler emphasizes that his city supports multiple outreach programs for the homeless, including the Broward County Central Homeless Assistance Center, a 230-bed shelter where the mayor has personally volunteered. He noted that the city expanded the law to allow any church to host a feeding. Although the rules wouldn’t allow a church to take food to the homeless living under a bridge, that church could invite those homeless to a meal at its own facility.

“The ordinances that were passed were part of a very comprehensive, compassionate approach to assisting the homeless,” Seiler said. “We wanted to handle homeless feeding in a more safe, secure manner.”

Abbott sees it differently.

“They feel it’s a detriment to tourism,” he said. “They have one goal, and that’s to get rid of all the homeless.” The day after the outdoor feeding ordinance went into effect on Oct. 31, Abbott’s organization hosted its regular Sunday afternoon feeding at Stranahan Park next to a downtown library. During the event, police cited Abbott and two other pastors for breaking the new law. Each violation carries a fine of up to $500 and 60 days in jail.

Abbott said he has since continued to break the ordinance “at least 10 times.” Although he moved his Sunday feeding out of Stranahan Park to a local church as a compromise with the city, he insists he’ll continue feeding at the beach.

One activist group, Food Not Bombs, has filed a lawsuit against the city over the ordinance.

Abbott himself has faced Fort Lauderdale in court over the beach feedings before. In 1999, the city tried to force Abbott’s homeless feedings off the beach, but he sued and won. “My argument was that I was inviting 150 of my closest friends to come join me for a meal on the beach,” Abbott said. Besides the regular feedings, Love Thy Neighbor runs a culinary school that has graduated more than 400 formerly homeless individuals, helping many get permanent jobs.

Love Thy Neighbor isn’t the only group affected by the new rules. Another nonprofit, People Helping People, has suspended its outdoor feedings while it waits for the dispute between Abbott and the city to be resolved. Besides food, director Patricia Hankerson said her volunteer group provides clothes, shoes, blankets, and hygiene items to the homeless.

The mayor, meanwhile, faces a reelection bid as he tries to stem criticism over his handling of the issue. His two challengers are a retired Air Force colonel who married his homosexual partner in January and an environmental activist who works as a bartender. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will occur in March.

Seiler said Love Thy Neighbor isn’t a problem because it already follows all of the sanitary rules required by the ordinance and usually leaves the beach cleaner then when it arrived. But the city said Abbott had to move the beach feeding anyway because other, less professional groups could try to pass out food at the same site.

“They go buy 10 boxes of pizza, they buy a couple cases of beer, they drop them off at the beach. … Now you’ve got food being served in an unhealthy, unsanitary way. You’ve got trash, litter, garbage, pollution everywhere,” Seiler said.

Abbott, however, claims Love Thy Neighbor is the only group that does homeless feedings at the beach. His group rejected the city’s recommendation of moving its meals to two alternate sites—a nondenominational church or a public swimming facility.

“That would effectively get us off the beach and never get us back on,” Abbott said.

Amid the dispute in December, a judge ordered the city and Abbott to enter mediation to negotiate a solution. The city has suspended the ordinance at least until Valentine’s Day. “We’re actually in some discussions on how to maybe tweak the ordinance,” Seiler said. “I need Arnold Abbott in the city of Fort Lauderdale … He provides a good service in a very nice way.”

Abbott said his attorney met with a city attorney but has not reached a resolution: “The beach is not negotiable.”

The homeless, Abbott said, “need someone to champion their cause.”

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and leads WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate or a former science and technology reporter. Daniel resides in Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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