Criminalizing Feeding the Homeless

By Daniela Tagtachian, Associate Editor Vol. 20

Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old homeless advocate of Fort Lauderdale, runs a non-profit organization called Love Thy Neighbor in Florida. With this organization, he has been feeding the homeless for more than 20 years. He has battled the city on many occasions in order to continue feeding the homeless. In 1999, Abbott was arrested, sued the city for banning him from feeding the homeless on the beach, and won. Abbott is planning on fighting again. Abbott stated, “I’m going to have to go to court again to sue the city of Fort Lauderdale, the beautiful city. These are the poorest of the poor. They have nothing. Don’t have a roof over their head, and who could turn them away?”

What law was Abbott violating by feeding the homeless in public?

In Fort Lauderdale, there is an ordinance that effectively outlaws people from feeding the homeless in public. Although the law itself doesn’t technically ban outdoor feedings, it raises the bar for groups such as Abbott’s in a way that makes it almost impossible to clear. The law created a list of rules for outdoor food distribution including sites needing to have restrooms or portable toilets, equipment for hand washing, be at least 500 feet away from residential areas and requires the obtaining of a permit or the consent of the owner.

Ministers and homeless advocates have been arrested for violating this ordinance. They can be jailed for up to 60 days and fined $500 for each “criminal offense.” Abbott told Fox News, “I have tried to abide by their regulations, but we just are not able to provide a port-a-potty… I believe that is the job of the municipality, anyway.” Additionally, he said, “the requirement that he get a port-a-potty should be moot since a public restroom is nearby and he says volunteers wash their hands before feedings and use gloves.”

Abbott’s position to continue helping his “fellow man”

Abbott said, “I plan to continue my feedings at the same site I have used for the past 23 years.” Abbott told Local 10, “I don’t do things to purposefully aggravate the situation, … I’m trying to work with the city. Any human has the right to help his fellow man.” Abbott told Fox News, “I know that I will be arrested again, and I am prepared for that, … I am my brother’s keeper, and what they are doing is just heartless.”

The city’s defense is based on concerns of “aesthetics” and potential health risks

Fort Lauderdale has passed a series of laws targeting the homeless. The city commission has banned soliciting for money at intersections and toughened laws against defecating in public. Additionally, “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.” According to the New Times Broward-Palm Beach, the city has responded by stating that these bans relate to “aesthetics.”

Mayor Jack Seiler and the city commissioners have claimed that these laws are designed to “ensure that public places are open to everyone” and to protect the homeless population from potential illnesses. Criminalizing feeding the homeless, especially when coupled with “routine homeless sweeps,” doesn’t seem like the best way to protect the homeless. Opponents have called the regulations “homeless hate laws.”

Beyond Fort Lauderdale: Why is this so troubling?

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, since 2007, 71 cities have attempted to enact or have enacted some type of rule related to food-sharing activities, targeting the homeless. Note also that more than 30 of these laws have been introduced within the past two years.

The homeless are some of the most vulnerable members of society. Oftentimes, the only way homeless people can get access to food is through charitable organizations, such as Abbott’s. The city should try to help stop the root problem of the homeless population instead of effectively criminalizing being homeless.

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