Homeless, Hungry, God Bless: Fort Lauderdale’s Attack on the Homeless

Rap group Arrested Development’s 1992 Billboard hit “Mr. Wendal” defied convention with its celebration of a homeless man who possessed wisdom and insight into the human condition that our materialistic culture so frequently misses. Speech, frontman of Arrested Development, rapped presciently: “Mr. Wendal, a man, a human in flesh, but not by law…”

In recent years, approximately 100 U.S cities have enacted laws targeting the homeless, and contributing to criminalizing the poor and homeless, and reducing them by law to something less than human.

Many of these cities have specifically targeted their food supply, enacting laws limiting or banning serving free food publicly. Houston, Pasadena, Raleigh, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and Philadelphia are among the many cities that have made news for their policies that sound good in closed door meetings, but don’t go over so well with the public.

Estimates vary: NBC puts the count at 37 cities, Reuters at 57, yet online estimates as high as more than 100 cities have restrictive laws on outdoor food service to the poor. Huffington Post claims thirty-three U.S. cities have jumped on the restriction bandwagon in the last year alone. Whatever the exact numbers, it is clear that this is a growing trend.

Anti-homeless laws typically take at least one of three forms:

  1. Restrictions on use of public property, targeting sleeping, eating, or other necessary activities a homeless person might have to do in public spaces.
  2. Similar to the above: “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) laws, where property owners seek to enact laws restricting development or use of nearby localities.
  3. Stringent food safety regulations—despite no clear evidence to date of food borne illness on the streets from food sharing groups.

The bans have outraged many across the country, leading to, in some cases, an increase in activity of serving the homeless, and raising awareness of the problem. Cooperation transcends ideology, too. One Houston-area volunteer with Food Not Bombs remarked, “It included evangelical groups, Tea Party groups, Muslims, Jews, Occupy and leftist people. It was amazing. I’ve never worked in a group like that.”

Anti-homeless laws have recently been breaking out all over Florida. Cities include Pensacola, Daytona Beach, Orlando, Lake Worth, Tampa, Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Bradenton.

Most recently, Fort Lauderdale mayor Jack Seiler has rankled many across the country when police arrested 90-year-old WWII veteran Arnold Abbott for serving food to the homeless outdoors. “’Drop that plate right there,’” Abbott claims an officer commanded him, as if he were wielding a weapon. Abbott has been serving the poor of Fort Lauderdale for more than two decades through his ministry, Love Thy Neighbor, and has no intention of stopping now.

The Fort Lauderdale law, enacted October 23, 2014, bans serving free food outdoors and effectively shuts down any outdoor food relief for the homeless. It carries a hefty penalty of up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine for violations.

The mayor claims they have not banned serving the homeless outdoors, but have simply regulated it for the good of the homeless. Opponents argue that the strictures are so stringent, few could comply, thereby eliminating outdoor free food service.

The ordinance—which is the fifth anti-homeless law Fort Lauderdale approved in a six month period—has quickly drawn international attention, beyond what previous cities have received for similar bans. Even comedian Stephen Colbert picked up the story on his late night comedy news show The Colbert Report, joking, “If George Zimmerman had fed a guy in a hoodie, he’d be in jail.”

Still, Mayor Jack Seiler is not laughing, and is resolute in his position. “Just because of media attention, we don’t stop enforcing the law. We enforce the laws here in Fort Lauderdale,” he insists. The city has continued making arrests the past several days.

As a new South Florida resident, I am concerned about such inhumane laws enacted here. I believe food is a basic human right, and as a Christian believe it is a sacred duty and sacramental act to feed and clothe the poor (Matthew 25:34-46). To make serving the homeless a crime is to infringe on the religious liberties and first amendment rights of Americans.

When Philadelphia enacted a similar ban in 2012, I began volunteering to serve food with with The King’s Jubilee, an Orthodox-affiliated ministry headed by longtime homeless advocate Cranford Coulter, who has served the poor of Philly in the name of Christ for nearly three decades.

Several ministries and non-religious groups banded together in the face of this oppression. I sat in several unity-building coalition meetings with Charismatics, Baptists, Orthodox, Libertarians, and Communists, all coming together for the first time with the common goal of serving food to the poor and homeless of Philadelphia, no matter what the City said or did.

Several of these ministries then banned together to fight Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter in Federal court—and won. Interestingly, they only won a temporary injunction, but the case was ultimately so devastating to Mayor Nutter and the City of Philadelphia, that they have ceased to appeal the case and left the injunction alone. The case was argued along the lines of religious liberty, and whenever Mayor Nutter argued that he was seeking the best for the homeless, the plaintiffs called his bluff and offered to work with him to find ways they could assist in that. And the plaintiffs were willing to make a number of concessions related to food safety, cleanliness practices, even posting food service permits at food service sites.

In the official deposition affidavit, Mr. Coulter summed up his position: “Our religious beliefs prevent us from seeking permission from the government for the exercise of our profound religious beliefs, including the act of worship of providing sustenance to those in need.”

The judge’s opinion was based squarely on Federal case law and the arguments set forth by the plaintiffs and defendants in court. It is a masterfully written opinion that could establish an objective source for future litigation.

I see no way forward for Fort Lauderdale without a court battle. Philadelphia can and should serve as a kind of case study of how to fight within the legal system—and win. It is not enough to valiantly defy the authorities and face possible jail time, though such non-violent resistance is admirable, and should continue.

A three-pronged approach of religious liberty, First Amendment rights, and community pressure has worked in Philadelphia and other communities. It can and should be argued that Fort Lauderdale’s new ordinance is a violation of free speech and religious liberty. Community pressure must be placed on elected officials to overturn the anti-homeless ordinances. People serving the homeless in Fort Lauderdale should work with the City on aspects of the regulation that truly do help the poor, cooperating wherever possible to find workable solutions and to demonstrate that these ordinances are ultimately not in the best interests of the homeless of Fort Lauderdale.

Collect your thoughts and calmly and intelligently contact Mayor Seiler at 954-828-5003 or by email at jackseiler@fortlauderdale.gov. Contact information for other relevant officials can be found here.

We can turn this situation around and restore justice and freedom to the poor and those who serve them out of love.

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Jamey Bennett lives in South Florida with his wife and…
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