When I wrote my earlier article on the homeless hate laws and criminalization of compassion in Fort Lauderdale, I had no idea that in less than a week national and international attention would turn to the injustice here in South Florida.
On the first day the ordinance banning outdoor feeding of homeless people went into effect, I gave away apples and packaged food items while the local Food Not Bombs group offered hot meals to dozens of homeless friends in the downtown Stranahan Park. Police watched and videoed the activity without intervening.
Two days later, Arnold Abbott and his Love Your Neighbor ministry set up serving tables in the same park, as they have done for a couple decades. As they began handing out plates of food, the police moved in. An officer confronted Abbott and demanded, “Drop that plate!” Abbott, Rev. Dwayne Black and my friend Fr. Mark Sims were given criminal citations that could result in sixty days in jail and a $500 fine.
Three days later I watched as police again took Abbott by the arm and led him away from the tables where he and others were providing food to the homeless on Fort Lauderdale beach. Again he was given a criminal citation. A few days after that, police interrupted a Food Not Bombs feeding, where they made the first arrests. In the following days others have continued offering food to the homeless, even on the steps of City Hall. Our police continue to issue criminal citations.
Now the whole world seems to be watching. Thousands of people have contacted Mayor Jack Seiler and other city officials, voicing their outrage at the draconian anti-homeless policies.
Many half-truths (and a few outright lies) are being broadcast in an effort to deflect the strong criticism that has come down on Fort Lauderdale. The Mayor claims he didn’t expect the fallout from the policies, though I, along with many others, warned him in city commission meetings that the religious community and people of good will wouldn’t stand for the damage they were going to inflict on the homeless.
Mayor Seiler is also claiming that the laws are really intended for the good of the homeless population. If that were really true, advocates for the homeless would be lining up behind him. They aren’t. Instead, the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Development authority are the strongest supporters of the anti-outdoor feeding ban and other ordinances that make life impossible for the homeless. The laws are not for the good of the homeless but for the good of moneyed interests.
“The city is actually trying to promote the safety and well-being of the homeless, ” claimed General Manager of the Riverside Market Julian Siegel, echoing the Mayor’s twisting of the truth. But the fact is that the outdoor feedings have been safe. Dr. Josh Loomis, a microbiologist at Nova Southeastern University and long-term volunteer working with the homeless, told the Mayor and city commissioners that food born disease from outdoor feedings were a “remote possibility.” He challenged them to produce reports that show otherwise.
Mayor Seiler is working hard to convince people that the real aim of the anti-feeding law is to move the homeless into more secure and sanitary indoor locations where they can receive not only food, but also other services. What he fails to reveal is that too few of those facilities exist. Meals are not being served every day, much less three times a day. And some of the facilities that do exist are too far away from many homeless people. The city isn’t offering transportation. Outdoor feedings offer a much needed service.
But the issue is not just about food. In an attempt to deflect criticism, City Commissioner Dean Trantalis chose to blame the victims of the draconian Fort Lauderdale laws. He insisted that the intake judge who handles the homeless who have violated the city’s ordinances told him there is a process for offering shelter and food, and a liaison to work with them, but “invariably these people just refuse to accept those places.”
Perhaps instead of talking to an intake judge, Commissioner Trantalis should talk to homeless people themselves. I have yet to hear one of them who are not mentally ill say, “I don’t want help. I don’t want a roof over my head. I don’t want a job.” Perhaps there are a few who want no help. But they are very few. What they don’t want is a place where others will rob or bully or demean them. They don’t want a place where they get put back on the streets before sunrise without a meal.
The laws against panhandling, sleeping on public property, allowing police to confiscate the few possessions the homeless temporarily store under a bush or park bench, and banning public feedings do not help the homeless. They harm them. “In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor— let them be caught in the schemes they have devised….Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed” (Psalm 10:2, 12).
We must raise our voices against laws that harm the homeless, not just in Fort Lauderdale, but wherever they are enacted. Advocacy for constructive solutions must continue if we truly “love our neighbor as we love ourselves.”