What began in Fort Lauderdale nine months ago with the soft if ominous whir of a legislative steamroller starting up turned into a crush of law enforcement today as four local stalwarts of helping those in need were issued summonses by Fort Lauderdale Police for violating a newly enacted ordinance restricting public food sharing throughout the city.
At least four police cruisers and a half dozen uniformed cops were ready and waiting for Love Thy Neighbor — not exactly the Clanton Gang — when the group showed up at its spot adjacent to Stranahan Park as it does every Sunday at 1 p.m. in a white van armed with trays of hot food. The group’s 90-year-old founder, Arnold Abbot, previously had announced that the new ordinance would not deter him from sharing food as he’s done for the past 23 years.
“Drop that plate right now,” was the Fort Lauderdale Police officer’s directive to Abbott, as he was doling out food to the fourth person in a line of well over 100 homeless and hungry people queuing on the sidewalk on a cool, sunlit day. Abbott later half-joked that from the way the officer barked his order, he seemed to have mistaken the plate in his hand for a gun.
Abbott had been insistent that none of his crew of about ten helpers put themselves in harm’s way and risk arrest as he was doing and called for calm among the visibly angry crowd as he was led from behind a table of food to the side of an FLPD cruiser to receive his summons. While the crowd stayed calm, it was too late to prevent others who already had assisted with the sharing from also being issued citations.
The Rev. Canon Mark Sims of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, the Rev. Dwayne Black of the Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, and Irene Smith, one of Love Thy Neighbor’s helpers, were each issued a summons. Their court dates will be set in the coming weeks. Violations of the ordinance carry penalties of up to a $500 fine and/or 60 days in jail.
The city had announced at a ‘town hall’ meeting back in January its plans to introduce ordinances restricting camping, panhandling, food sharing, and other activities that are considered “life sustaining” due to the condition of homeless people, who have to conduct their lives outdoors for the most part. The first of the ordinances, passed in early May, banned leaving personal property in public space for more than 24 hours and strengthened an existing ordinance criminalizing public defecation.
|Abbott receives a summons|
The city has consistently rejected advocates’ demands for more public restrooms, and City Manager Lee Feldman, interviewed several months ago by local media, pronounced that if homeless folk needed to relieve themselves, they could go to Broward General Hospital to do so.
In September, bans on camping downtown and panhandling near major intersections took effect. But the food-sharing restrictions have drawn the most ire, and the irony of that law’s having become official on Halloween, a day of sharing candy, wasn’t lost on a number of the groups that will be impacted by the ordinance going forward.
While the group Food Not Bombs wasn’t interfered with at its regular late-afternoon food-sharing in Stranahan Park this past Friday — some surmised this was due to the presence of a Local 10 News camera crew — a Facebook event page the group created had called for supporters to come and resist the law dressed as food.
The enactment of five ordinances criminalizing homelessness in less than six months has been called “unprecedented” by Michael Stoops, founder of the National Coalition for the Homeless and a homeless advocate for more than 30 years. The coalition, the largest and oldest homeless advocacy group in the nation, only two weeks ago released a report, Share No More: The Criminalization of Efforts to Feed People in Need, which details a dramatic rise in the past two years of U.S. cities’ criminalization of food-sharing.
|An officer makes sure hungry homeless people do not get any donuts.|
Benjamin Waxman, ACLU lead attorney in the landmark Pottinger v. City of Miamisettlement agreement, calls Fort Lauderdale’s treatment of the homeless “evocative of conditions in Miami before the Pottinger case began” back in 1988.
The Pottinger case established limited protections against criminalizing homelessness in Miami and last year withstood an effort by that city to eliminate its core protections, including ones related to food-sharing and camping. Prior to Pottinger’s original filing, official police abuse of Miami’s homeless, often carried out by its so-called “bum squad,” had become notorious and included such acts of cruelty as the seizure by Miami Police Department officers of homeless persons’ property, which was then burned as they were forced to watch.
The confiscation of the property of six homeless persons in Fort Lauderdale that was overseen by an as-yet-unidentified FLPD officer, alleged to have occurred on the morning of September 24, is just one of countless incidents of abuse reported by homeless people in recent months that justify the comparison with Miami.
An inquiry a week after the incident allegedly occurred to FLPD’s property room manager, Dawn Ramage, confirmed that no property had been turned in despite a requirement that all seized property be stored for at least 30 days. Nor were the homeless folk who spoke about the theft of their property, including one woman whose breathing medication was taken, given a 24-hour notice as the personal property ordinance mandates. The woman, Renee (full name withheld for fear of retribution), who suffers from COPD, wound up in Broward General Hospital for three days because she couldn’t access her medication. Seven bags of recyclables, which the homeless had been collecting to exchange for cash, were also seized in that incident.
Responding to today’s events, the Rev. Mark Sims lamented, “It’s sad that we criminalize sharing food with people who are hungry, not necessarily even homeless.”
“I don’t think the city has a right to tell us we can’t feed the homeless,” insisted the Rev. Dwayne Black. “This is breaking my Christian vows.”
|Abbott, Black, and Sims just before they were cited and their food-sharing shut down.|
When asked what’s next, the reverend stated, “Continuing to feed them.”
Arnold Abbott’s take was the same melodic riff he’s been trumpeting for years: “I went through World War 2. I fought in the Civil Rights movement. This won’t stop us. All this did was move us to court earlier than we had planned.”