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Feeding the homeless: Act of charity or a crime?

November 5, 2014

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (AP) — To Arnold Abbot, feeding the homeless in a public park in Florida was an act of charity. But to the city of Fort Lauderdale, the 90-year-old man was committing a crime.

Arnold and two Florida ministers were arrested last weekend as they handed out food. They were charged with breaking a new ordinance restricting public feeding of the homeless, and each faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

“One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” Abbott told television station WPLG.

Fort Lauderdale is the latest city to pass restrictions on feeding homeless people in public places as residents and businesses worry that their neighborhoods will become magnets for the homeless. Advocates for the homeless say the cities are fighting to control growing numbers but that simply passing ordinances doesn’t work.

“Street feeding programs don’t work,” said Robert Marbut, a consultant and expert on homelessness in the U.S. “Outlawing it doesn’t work, either. ... You’re never going to have a good day arresting a priest.”

In the past two years, more than 30 cities have tried to introduce laws similar to Fort Lauderdale’s, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. The efforts come as more military veterans face homelessness and after two harsh winters drove homeless people south, especially to Florida, Marbut said.

In Fort Lauderdale, the arrests haven’t deterred Abbott, Dwayne Black and Mark Sims. The ministers were back at church Wednesday preparing meals for a feeding at a public park later that night.

Mayor Jack Seiler said he thinks the three have good intentions, but that the city can’t discriminate in enforcing the law. He said it was passed to ensure that public places are open to everyone.

Black noted that the ordinance passed after a long meeting after midnight, when many people had gone home. He said he knows there’s a good chance he’ll be arrested, but he wants to be there to “reopen the discussion on this ordinance.”

“If that’s what happens, that’s what happens,” Black said.

Police said the men were not taken into custody and that they were given notices to appear in court, where the matter will ultimately be decided by a judge.

Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance took effect Friday. It is one of five laws dealing with the homeless that Fort Lauderdale passed in May. The others ban people from leaving their belongings unattended, outlaw panhandling at medians in streets, and strengthen defecation and urination laws, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“I’ve never seen a city pass so many laws in such a short period of time,” said Stoops.

Advocates for the homeless say cities around the U.S. have been criminalizing homelessness more aggressively since 2006. Some conduct routine homeless sweeps, and others have launched anti-panhandling campaigns, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

In Houston, groups need written consent to feed the homeless in public, or they face a $2,000 fine. Organizations in Columbia, South Carolina, must pay $150 for a permit more than two weeks in advance to feed the homeless in city parks.

In Orlando, an ordinance requires groups to get a permit to feed 25 or more people in parks in a downtown district. Groups are limited to two permits per year for each park. Since then, numerous activists have been arrested for violating the law.

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Information from: WPLG-TV, http://www.local10.com/index.html

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