Police in Fort Lauderdale, Florida arrested a 90-year-old man last weekend for feeding homeless people — an act of charity he's been doing regularly for the past 23 years.
At least four police cruisers and a half dozen uniformed cops were waiting for Arnold Abbott and two pastors when they arrived at a local Florida park Sunday afternoon to distribute food to more than 100 homeless and hungry people, according to the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. Abbot, the founder of the service organization Love Thy Neighbor, managed to dole out four meals before he was placed in handcuffs and issued a summons.
"An officer said, 'Drop that plate right now — like I had a weapon,'" Abbott reportedly said.
Video of the incident showed the crowd booing police and yelling "Shame on you!"
The men now face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine after being charged under a new city ordinance banning public food sharing, one of several new rules to crackdown on homelessness.
"I'm not satisfied with having a cycle of homeless in the city of Fort Lauderdale," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler told the Sun-Sentinel. "Providing them with a meal and keeping them in that cycle on the street is not productive."
It's the fifth ordinance passed in Fort Lauderdale in the past six months that sets restrictions on the city's homeless. The others include banning the homeless from asking for money at busy intersections, and making it illegal to sleep and store belongings on public property.
When the latest ordinance passed on October 22, opponents gathered outside the local government offices and chanted, "Blood, blood, blood on your hands. Shame, shame, shame on Seiler," and "Hey, Jack, what do you say? How many homeless did you starve today?"
Cities that have or are trying to pass such laws include Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, and Philadelphia, to name just a few.
More than 30 cities have passed or are considering bans on food-sharing, and, of those, more than 20 have successfully restricted food-sharing since January 2013, according to a study published last month by the D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless.
Other laws targeting the homeless are also on the increase. Citywide bans on camping in public have increased by 60 percent since 2011, and bans on panhandling increased by 25 percent, according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
Critics of the laws argue that authorities are deliberately making it more difficult for the homeless to survive because they want to make their neighborhoods more appealing to businesses and tourists.
"Economic development and tourism don't mesh well with homeless folks and the agencies that serve them," Michael Stoops, the community organizer at the National Coalition for the Homeless, told NBC.
"There are always efforts to try to get the shelters to move to the other side of town," he continued. "But even if they did that, there would still be homeless folks in the downtown areas, because many of the government agencies, social security, welfare, food stamps, are located in the downtown areas."
Many of the cities introducing restrictions on food-sharing are located in Florida and southern California, where warm weather tends to attract people who have no choice but sleep outdoors. Advocates of the legislation say churches and private groups dolling out food lures homeless people away from city-run programs and makes the problem worse.
Experts disagree. "There are many myths and motivations that are frequently circulated regarding the issues of homelessness and food-sharing," the National Coalition for the Homeless report said. "Food-sharing does not perpetuate homelessness."
In enacting its laws, Fort Lauderdale legislators cited "public health and safety," saying the feeding restriction will protect the homeless population from potential illnesses.
Abbott, who has been feeding homeless people in Fort Lauderdale since 1991, says that the new laws are hurting the city's most vulnerable residents.
"These are the poorest of the poor. They have nothing. They don't have a roof over their head," Abbott said. "Who can turn them away?"
The new city regulations require groups feeding the homeless to be at least 500 feet away from residential properties, and limits food distribution sites to one per city block, with no two sites closer than 500 feet to each other.
Micah Harris, another local advocate whose organization the Peanut Butter and Jelly Project provides meals to the homeless, told WPLG Local 10 News that people in Fort Lauderdale are "literally starving on the streets."
"For lack of a better term, it's atrocious," he said about the ordinance. "It's disgusting."
But the mayor defended the measure, telling WPLG: "Just because of media attention we don't stop enforcing the law. We enforce the laws here in Fort Lauderdale."
"It looks like the city is choking out every avenue for the homeless to survive in the city," Haylee Becker from the group Food Not Bombs told the Sun Sentinel when previous ordinances passed in September. "I think that they're all terrible ordinances, but coupled together, it's a death sentence."
As for Abbott, the 90-year-old has experienced brushes with the law over feeding the homeless in the past. In 1999, he successfully sued the city for banning him from feeding homeless people on the beach. He remains determined to keep serving the city's homeless, and said he's even prepared to sue again.
"I know that I will be arrested again, and I am prepared for that," he told Fox News. "I am my brother's keeper, and what they are doing is just heartless."
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