Judge Orders Florida City To Pause Arrests Of People Feeding The Homeless

A homeless man rests on a bench in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: SHAWN DAVIS
A homeless man rests on a bench in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: SHAWN DAVIS

A Florida city that made it illegal to feed homeless people on the street and arrested a 90-year-old charity volunteer for defying the ordinance must sit down for mediated talks with opponents of the law after a judge issued a 30-day stay of the law on Monday.

“Obviously we would prefer to enforce our laws,” Mayor Jack Seiler told the Sun-Sentinel, but “I think it’s a good decision for the judge to send it to mediation.”

Fort Lauderdale’s city council passed the homeless feeding ban last month after an all-night session beset by protesters. Arnold Abbott, a World War II veteran and longtime charity volunteer in the community, was among the first people to be arrested and charged with violating the new law. “One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” Abbott told Local 10 after his arrest. Days later, he and other volunteers served the homeless again while police looked on and filmed them.

Seiler praised Abbott’s role in the community and insisted that the city’s beef with charity workers is limited to the locations they use to feed the homeless. Like several other cities in Florida and elsewhere that have enacted similar crackdowns on helping the homeless in public, Fort Lauderdale’s policy is the brainchild of a man called Robert Marbut. Marbut believes that on-the-street feedings only enable the homeless to remain homeless and the poor to remain poor, and makes claims about how panhandlers behave that are contradicted by research findings.

Marbut charges cities between $40,000 and $50,000 to share his insights, which are then used to justify legal crackdowns such as Fort Lauderdale’s. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that Fort Lauderdale was the 13th city this year to impose restrictions on where homeless feeding programs can be located, and the 22nd to make it harder to feed the homeless in general.

A Broward County official who works with the Fort Lauderdale government complained to the Sun Sentinel that the press coverage of the anti-feeding law has created an unfair and inaccurate picture of the city as a hard-hearted community. But the feeding ban is only the latest in a sequence of petty crackdowns. Earlier this fall the city made it illegal to sleep in public. Over the summer, city leaders passed a law empowering police to confiscate any personal belongings stored on public property, in an apparent effort to discourage homeless people from keeping what few possessions they have with them on the streets.

Such efforts to criminalize homelessness are far more costly than programs to house the homeless and provide the social services they need to reintegrate into society, but the approach remains popular at the local level. There is a growing consensus among anti-homelessness groups that permanent housing and wraparound services is a far more effective approach to curbing homelessness than the criminalization approach that has brought Fort Lauderdale such negative press.

Meanwhile, a Utah man who bought a “Never Ending Pasta Pass” from Olive Garden used the $100 card to get carry-out meals to feed homeless people on an individual, informal basis was invited onto Good Morning America earlier this week. “I understand now why people devote their lives to serving others,” he said.