Dear Florida: How Can You Arrest a 90-Year-Old Vet for Feeding the Homeless?

When my dad retired a couple years ago, I was terrified.

My dad is a keeping-busy kind of guy, rarely content to sit around the house, not a tremendous fan of television that’s not basketball or football (excepting the occasional “I just discovered ‘Game of Thrones’!” binge-watch), and he gets prickly with nothing to do. We’re alike in that way. So when he stopped working, I worried: would he be bored? Would he be unhappy? What on earth is he going to do all day?

In the absence of an office and desk, however, he rapidly adopted two new activities: golf, which he had barely played in his life but which follows in the great tradition of recent retirees, I suspect in part because it is a slow game that takes forever; and working at a local soup kitchen.

My father volunteers at the Jubilee Center of South Broward, a rare five-days-a-week operation that feeds between 120 to 160 homeless people a day. It’s located in an older part of Hollywood, Florida, a city that lies just between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, originally founded in 1925 and named after Hollywood, California by a man who dreamed of creating a similar movie-making hub on the east coast. It is also where I was born.

It was therefore from my dad, and not the national news, that I first heard about 90-year-old Arnold Abbott being charged by police for feeding homeless individuals in a Fort Lauderdale park on Sunday -- and that he was cited again yesterday for doing the same on a beach.

The Fort Lauderdale law restricting feeding homeless people outdoors is relatively new, passed by the city commission literally in the middle of the night on October 22 -- at 3:30 a.m., to be precise, as opponents of the law protested noisily outside City Hall. The ordinance mostly affects churches and other advocacy organizations that bring food to South Florida’s substantial homeless community in parks and other public spaces, rather than relying on homeless individuals coming to a religious institution or other permanent structure to be fed.

Among other restrictions, the new rules state that outdoor feeding operations cannot be within 500 feet of each other, and that they must be at least 500 feet from residential areas. They also require such operations to have portable toilet facilities, which is a substantial hurdle for small groups trying to offer assistance on a budget, as almost all are.

The primary argument in favor of these limitations is not based on concerns about public health, as you might expect, but that bringing such support directly to homeless populations is driving people away from state-funded programs meant to get them into indoor emergency shelters and transitional programs, and therefore “encourages” people to stay homeless. As one lobbyist arguing in favor of the ordinance put it, "Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness. Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing."

And Fort Lauderdale mayor Jack Seiler has similarly stated: "I'm not satisfied with having a cycle of homeless in the city of Fort Lauderdale. Providing them with a meal and keeping them in that cycle on the street is not productive."

Opponents of these restrictions argue that Fort Lauderdale is passing these laws not out of an abundance of concern for homeless people, but for how large unsheltered homeless populations lined up for meals in outdoor public spaces might affect tourism and the city’s image.

They might be right, as the outdoor feeding restrictions are only the most recent move meant to limit and criminalize homelessness in Fort Lauderdale. In September, the city passed two other ordinances, one making it illegal to sleep in public, and another that bans panhandling in “busy intersections.” 

And earlier this year, Fort Lauderdale also made it illegal for individuals to store personal belongings -- or to relieve themselves, a necessary fact of living on the streets -- in public.

Homeless people arrested for breaking these new laws may be forced to pay a $500 fine, or spend 60 days in jail. Given that one of the more common reasons a person is homeless -- beyond the extremely high incidence of untreated mental illness -- is because of a criminal record making it difficult to find a job, this would only seem to add insult to injury. 

In fact, Fort Lauderdale’s homeless population is bolstered by people being released from county jail -- as many as 150 people a day in 2013 -- frequently in the middle of the night, many of whom have no money, relatives or support systems in the area, and who may now inadvertently break the law again by sleeping on a park bench because they don’t know what resources are available to them, or because they are  unwilling to go to an emergency shelter -- themselves sometimes dangerous places where assault and theft are common -- when they have just left jail. (This is not to suggest that bunking down outside is necessarily safer, as in Miami, city workers may steal your stuff while you sleep anyway.)

Arguably this endless loop of criminalized survival is the real “cycle of homelessness," and not some presumption of simple laziness on the part of people living in public spaces.

Even worse, in 2013, Florida was designated the most dangerous state for homeless people by the National Coalition for the Homeless for the third time. In 2012, Florida had twice as many reported hate crimes against the homeless than the first runner-up, California, in spite of California's homeless population being nearly three times larger than that of Florida. 

With all this, it’s tough to take seriously the suggestion that these laws are in place to “help” homeless people at all; it seems more likely that they are an effort to eradicate them. And homelessness is a significant problem for South Florida, which relies on tourism for the majority of its economy and might be inclined to see a large unsheltered homeless population as a cosmetic issue as much as a human one. According to the Department of Housing and Human Development’s 2013 report to Congress, the state of Florida is home to over 47,000 homeless people. This is the third highest of any state in the nation, behind California and New York, and Florida’s homeless population represents 8% of the national total. Of those 47,000, almost 60% were unsheltered, meaning they were living in makeshift non-permanent shelters, encampments, abandoned buildings, or vehicles.

Fort Lauderdale is not the only city to pass these laws; they are becoming increasingly common nationwide in cities where homelessness is deemed a problem. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty tracks similar laws in dozens of American cities and has found that criminalizing homelessness does little to decrease homeless rates, or help the people who need it most. When nationwide only 26% of homeless people know of a legal place for them to sleep, it’s little wonder that these laws seem to be sweeping these individuals under the rug by throwing them in jail rather than actually offering assistance and support.

But Arnold Abbott -- the 90-year-old World War II vet currently capturing the attention of the national news -- and his Love Thy Neighbor nonprofit are not backing down, and are for the moment succeeding in making this a national conversation, because while people may look the other way when a homeless man is thrown in jail, they tend to pay attention when an elderly guy just trying to supply a meal to folks who need it gets hassled by the police. Abbott has been providing meals to homeless people since 1991, and has said he intends to continue his outdoor feeding operations even if it lands him in jail: "These are the poorest of the poor. They have nothing. They don't have a roof over their head… Who can turn them away?"


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