FURTHER READING:  Homeless Advocate, 90, Gets World Attention as Fort Lauderdale Tries to Stop Him From Feeding the Homeless

Earlier this week, commissioners in Fort Lauderdale ended a marathon meeting with a 3:30 a.m. vote that approved restrictions on how and where the homeless may be fed.  The commission didn’t talk about the issue until 2 in the morning.  Commissioners heard from advocates most of the time.  Several dozen people chanted outside the chambers, “Blood, blood, blood on your hands. Shame, shame, shame on [Mayor Jack] Seiler.”

“Hey, Jack, what do you say? How many homeless did you starve today?”

Homeless advocates put together a “mass solidarity food sharing” in front of City Hall prior to the meeting.  Officials describe the new laws as “public health and safety measures”, but many are calling them “homeless hate laws.”  The new rules say that feeding sites cannot be within 500 feet of each other, that only one is allowed in any given city block and that any site would have to be at least 500 feet away from residential areas.  Churches will be allowed to have indoor feeding programs near residential areas, but not outside ones.  Organizations distributing food outdoors would also need the permission of the property owner and would have to provide portable toilets.  The rules could force organizations, who often work on tight budgets, to cease operations.

“The feedings are just considered an eyesore to you guys,” said Irene Smith, who is active with Love Thy Neighbor, a group that provides weekly meals to the homeless on the beach and in the downtown park area, “We see these meals as a starting point [for the lives of others].”

Ron Book, a city lobbyist who chairs the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, told the panel that he supported the law, “Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness. Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing.”

Commissioner Dean Trantalis was the only opposition vote and said that he supported the feeding restrictions, but didn’t agree with concentrating social services too much in one community.  Commissioners said they will look at reworking those zoning portions later.

The ordinance is one of several recent efforts by officials to crack down on the city’s increasing downtown homeless population.  Besides enacting feeding restrictions, the commission also banned the homeless from soliciting in intersections.  They also outlawed sleeping on public property and storing personal belongings in public areas.

Commissioners defended their actions by saying they are advocates for the homeless.  The city is working to provide 22 people who are chronically homeless with permanent housing.  The city also runs an outreach program through its police department and supports homeless assistance centers.  The city’s new budget includes $25,000 to buy one-way bus tickets for homeless people who want to reunite with their families.

Over the weekend, several people were cited for violating the new ordinance.  Among them were two pastors and a 90-year-old man who has been running a charity to help the homeless for more than two decades.  Arnold Abbott, who runs Love Thy Neighbor, said he had only handed out 4 of the 300 meals he had prepared when police ordered him to stop.

Abbott, the Rev. Mark Sims, and the Rev. Dwayne Black were each cited for willfully violating a city law.  Police issued them notices to appear in court where they will have to explain their actions.  They face a maximum of 60 days in jail and a $500.  They said that they would not stop.  At least 21 cities in Florida, starting last year, have placed restrictions on feeding the homeless. This isn’t the first time charity workers have been arrested, in 2011, three members of Food Not Bombs were arrested for handing out food in the park.  It isn’t just Florida.

Last spring, authorities in Birmingham, Alabama used food truck license laws to stop a pastor from giving the homeless water.  Some homeless shelters have been threatened with shutdown during cold spells because they are over capacity.

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has been fighting similar laws across the country.

RELATED:  The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty | National Alliance to End Homelessness | National Coalition for the Homeless | United States Interagency Council on Homelessness:  Homelessness is Criminal – People Experiencing It Are Not | The State of Homelessness in America 2014 | Rights of the Homeless

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