Church leaders in Florida were preparing for a second confrontation with Fort Lauderdale police on Wednesday over a controversial new ordinance than bans them from feeding the city’s homeless.
Pastors from two local churches and the 90-year-old leader of a long-established food kitchen were arrested at a park on Sunday, two days after the law took effect, for attempting to serve meals to homeless residents. Each received a citation threatening 60 days in prison and a $500 fine.
Dwayne Black, pastor of the downtown Sanctuary Church, said he and church members would set up their regular feeding station at Fort Lauderdale beach on Wednesday in defiance of the ordinance. He said he expected to be arrested again and to spend the night in jail.
“We have been feeding the homeless for a long time. It is our calling and our duty to not let another human being go hungry. But now it’s a crime to feed a hungry person,” Black told the Guardian.
“The city says that it creates an eyesore; they are saying that human beings being fed is an eyesore. What they are doing is wrong. It lacks all compassion.”
Despite the opposition of religious groups and activists, Fort Lauderdale commissioners, led by mayor Jack Seiler, have voted through a number of new laws this year intended to clamp down on the city’s estimated 10,000 homeless people. They include restrictions on roadside panhandling, sleeping on public property and the storage of personal belongings in public places.
The latest ordinance, approved four to one in a midweek commission vote that took place at 3.30am, effectively stifles any group-feeding project within city limits. Organisers must first seek permits or the permission of property owners next to the proposed sites, which cannot be within 500ft of residential property. They must also provide portable toilets and must also comply with state imposed food safety standards.
Opponents say the rule outlawing the public sharing of food is an “atrocious and disgusting” law. “The city is choking out every avenue for the homeless to survive,” Haylee Becker of the Food Not Bombs advocacy group told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “They’re all terrible ordinances, but together they’re a death sentence.”
According to observers of anti-homeless legislation countrywide, Fort Lauderdale is following other municipalities in an increasingly popular direction. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported last month that at least 31 cities had passed bans or restrictions on food sharing, or were acting to do so.
“These laws disregard the first amendment right of religious organisations to exercise their faith and assist their less fortunate neighbours,” NCH community organiser Michael Stoops said in conclusion to a 29-page report on the criminalisation of feeding the homeless.
“Budget cuts and criminalisation efforts are misdirected, narrow in scope, and neglect to make long-term policy changes that work to eradicate homelessness.”
City officials in Fort Lauderdale, however, insist the new laws were necessary to maintain public health and safety. Mayor Seiler told reporters that anybody who defied the ordinances could expect to be arrested.
“Just because of media attention, we don’t stop enforcing the law. We enforce the laws here in Fort Lauderdale,” he said.
One of those cited by police on Sunday, Arnold Abbott, 90, a second world war veteran and founder of the interfaith Love Thy Neighbour non-profit group, said he would continue to try to feed Fort Lauderdale’s homeless and planned to file a lawsuit against the city to try to get the ordinance overturned.
“I know I will be arrested again, I’m prepared for that,” he told Fox News. “I am my brother’s keeper and what they are doing is just heartless. They are trying to sweep the poorest of the poor under the rug.”
Black, the Fort Lauderdale pastor, said he expected to arrive at the beach later on Wednesday to find police waiting for the church group. “They were already there at the park on Sunday with lights flashing. We’d handed out four or five platefuls and they demanded we put our utensils down and come with them,” he said.
“They’ve planted their feet in the sand and it will probably be the same today. But we have a lot if support. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing with offers of help and money for a legal defence fund. We are going to feed people.”
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