The debate in America surrounding the criminalization of homelessness just got a bit more heated after officers in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., cited 90-year-old Arnold Abbott for comforting his homeless neighbors in a public park with a free meal.
Unfortunately for Abbott, the City of Fort Lauderdale’s city council banned the feeding of homeless people in public areas on Oct. 22 if several sanitation and permit conditions were not upheld.
Abbott has worked for years with the organization Love Thy Neighbor to feed homeless people in public parks and beaches in the city, to the displeasure of city officials.
In 2002, Abbott faced temporary barriers to feeding people in public places and successfully sued the city to regain his right to continue his mission, according to an article by the Sun Sentinel.
However, with this new ordinance in place, Abbott and other organizational leaders are facing $500 fines and jail stays up to 60 days. With two citations already acquired, Abbott may soon find himself in a jail cell.
But according to the city’s mayor, John P. “Jack” Seiler, there has been a grave misunderstanding between the city council’s actions, Abbott and media covering the events unfolding in Florida.
“Contrary to reports, the City of Fort Lauderdale is not banning groups from feeding the homeless,” Seiler said in a press release. “We have established an outdoor food distribution ordinance to ensure the health, safety and welfare of our community. The ordinance does not prohibit feeding the homeless; it regulates the activity in order to ensure it is carried out in an appropriate, organized, clean and healthy manner.”
Technically, Seiler is right. There isn’t a ban on feeding the homeless, merely barriers.
According to the new ordinance, if food is distributed in public for free or little cost, then portable toilets, waste disposal areas and hand washing stations must be available. There must also be a certified food service manager on site to keep all food at proper temperatures.
These may from afar seem like reasonable requirements, but this ordinance reveals itself as another way to push the problems of the homeless into dark shadows, away from tourist attractions that take away from the city’s beauty.
It goes against a city ordinance to provide a warm meal to the homeless without also providing proper cleaning stations, but it isn’t illegal to ignore the thousands of homeless people everyday on the street in need of a bath?
It seems it’s only illegal to disregard sanitation needs of the impoverished if you insist on bringing them into the public areas for all to see in the middle of the day.
The purpose of the ordinance, as outlined in the ordinance’s second draft, is to establish criteria for public property use by social service organizations that will minimally impact surrounding properties because of adverse secondary effects, which include “noise” and “odor.”
It seems the city is saying to those who plan to use public property, ‘If you insist on doing this, it better not make us look bad.’
But homelessness isn’t pretty and sometimes the appearance of hundreds of homeless people in public, all in need of a meal to stave off starvation and possibly death, can have an “adverse impact” by demonstrating the needs of many.
This trend to push issues of homelessness away from public view by increasing the strain on food providers is a growing trend. In 2014, an 11 additional cities passed food-sharing laws that required groups to obtain permits to distribute food on public property, according to a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Florida comes in second place for states with the most cities that restrict feeding the homeless with seven in total. California is in first with 10 cities, including the touristy of them all, Los Angeles.
But Seiler assures his constituents that this ordinance is in the best interest of all because, according to his press release, opening houses of worship instead of public parks to providing these services to the homeless “is actually increasing the number of locations” people can be served.
Perhaps someone should explain to Seiler that subtraction, like eliminating public parks from the equation, creates a reduction. Not just in places where the homeless can eat, but also in the amount of good deeds spreading hope in communities and hope in the lives of the destitute.