South Florida's year-round warm weather makes it a destination for our country's homeless. Not having to contend with snow or the freezing cold makes the unfortunate situation of not having a roof slightly more bearable. But residents of Fort Lauderdale apparently don't like their town's reputation as a paradise for the nation's transients. Since this past May, city officials have passed ordinances against panhandling, the storage of personal property on sidewalks, and camping in public spaces—effectively criminalizing homelessness.
That led to Food Not Bombs members being forced out of a city park on Friday and threatened with arrest. It also led to Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old who runs a charity called Love Thy Neighbor, getting detained by cops who went on to confiscate trays of hot food and boxes of donuts with which he was feeding the homeless. Two clergymen were also arrested (the trio face 60 days in jail), and the whole thing was captured on camera.
"I fed three out of the 200 people in line and as I went to serve the fourth plate, I felt an arm on my arm," Abbott told me. "[The cop's] command was, 'Drop that plate right now!' as if it were a weapon I was holding." The activist, who dropped out of a Ivy League pre-med program to serve in World War II, was then led away and written a citation for setting up a food-sharing site without providing portable toilets.
"Fort Lauderdale is a very wealthy area," he explained. "We have lots of the mega-rich and lots of powerful people who live here and they don't want any homeless spoiling the view for the tourists."
Jeff Weinberger runs the Broward Homeless Campaign, a Facebook group that shares information about the homeless community. "There's absolutely no question that Fort Lauderdale is the worst place in America to be homeless right now," he told me. "They've passed five ordinances in the past six months that criminalize homelessness and that is unprecedented. They're basically thinking that if they pass all of these laws that in some way it would get rid of homeless people but that has never at any time or any place proven to be valid."
The advocate added that arresting homeless people gives them a criminal record—just another hurdle to overcome when seeking employment.
But while Fort Lauderdale's city commission might be acting callously, the National Coalition for the Homeless says they're not alone in passing these sorts of laws. According to an October 20 report, over 30 cities have tried to introduce similar food-sharing bans in the past two years.
But Abbott says the portable toilet rule is unique to South Florida —a prohibitively expensive requirement for someone who's already doling out the cash to feed 200 mouths. When I spoke to him he said he plans break the rule again by feeding the homeless on Fort Lauderdale Beach, as he's done every week since 1991.
"They're waiting for me, and I will definitely be arrested this time," he told me.
"I'm not worried about jail," he added. "I fought the KKK in Civil Rights times. I'm only concerned if the food will get to the mouths of the hungry. The fight will go on, I promise you that."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.