Fort Lauderdale arrests 90-year-old for feeding homeless

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
Arnold Abbott puts "Love Thy Neighbor" into action by feeding the homeless. Photo by Maureen A. Abbott Love Thy Neighbor Fund/

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Christian Examiner) – It used to be teenagers and twenty-somethings on spring break were the blight in Fort Lauderdale, an Atlantic coastal city 23 miles north of Miami.

Now it's a nonagenarian who is feeding the homeless.

Ninety-year old Arnold Abbott and two pastors were arrested Sunday, Nov. 2 – and Arnold again Wednesday – for violating a new city ordinance, passed Oct. 21, that essentially eliminates feeding the homeless. It limits where outdoor feeding sites can be located, requires the permission of property owners and mandates portable toilets.

Each man arrested Sunday faces two months in jail and a $500 fine. Arnold's fine has grown to $1,000.

Fort Lauderdale, with 165,000 residents, has an estimated 10,000 homeless living near downtown. City leaders passed the restrictions in an effort to reduce panhandling and other unwanted effects of so many vagrants living in such a concentration out of fears of affecting tourism, especially among affluent travelers drawn to its yachting environment.

"I have tried to abide by their regulations," said 90-year-old Arnold Abbott, who has been feeding the homeless in Fort Lauderdale for 20 years in memory of his wife, Maureen, who had a heart for transients.

"We just are not able to provide a port-a-potty," Abbott said of his Love thy Neighbor ministry. "I believe that is the job of the municipality anyway," he told Fox News.

Abbott, a World War ll veteran who won two Purple Heart medals as an infantryman, and later worked as a jewelry salesman, said he plans to continue feeding the homeless.

He got in trouble at Fort Lauderdale Beach for the same reason in 1999. He sued the city then, and won.

"I'll go to court again and sue the city," Abbott told Fox News. "They're doing the bidding of the very wealthy, and they are trying to sweep the poorest of the poor under the rug."

In September, the city banned sleeping or "camping" within the downtown area, as well as one prohibiting panhandling at busy intersections. Earlier this year the city made it illegal for homeless people to store their possessions in public – think "shopping carts" – and made "using the facilities" where there are none punishable by 60 days in jail.

"It looks like the city is choking out every avenue for the homeless to survive here," said Haylee Becker of the national Food Not Bombs organization, in an article for the Huffington Post. "I think they're all terrible ordinances, but coupled together, it's a death sentence."

Michael Stoops, community organizing director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, talked with National Public Radio's "The Salt" program about ordinances restricting feeding the hungry in Fort Lauderdale and in 20 other cities across the nation since January 2012.

"Cities' hope is that restricting sharing of food will somehow make the homeless disappear, go away," Stoops said. "But I can promise you that even if these ordinances are adopted, it's not going to get rid of homelessness."

In Fort Lauderdale, the weather is too nice, 12 months out of the year. Average temperatures range from 75 to 90 degrees throughout the year, and temperatures on the "coldest-ever" days have never dipped below 28 degrees. Also, because of the beaches, there's always public space where people can loiter undisturbed – until now.

"I'm not satisfied with having a cycle of homelessness in the city of Fort Lauderdale," Mayor Jack Seiler said, as reported by CNN. "Providing them with a meal and keeping them in that cycle on the street is not productive."

Dwayne Black, pastor of The Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, and Mark Sims, pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in nearby Coral Springs, were arrested with Abbott.

Black said he understood that large numbers of homeless people are considered undesirable by city officials, downtown residents and business owners. "But let's just feed them," he said in a local news article. "And then deal with the other issues."

Sims agreed that Fort Lauderdale has a problem with homelessness, but said the answer isn't laws that make it hard to feed people. "It's not an easy issue, not cut and dried," the Episcopal pastor said in the same Sun-Sentinel article.

"What is cut and dried is that people deserve to eat when they are hungry, and people of faith are compelled to reach out to people who are in need. ... We need to work harder to solve the problem, rather than just shutting it down," Sims said, according to Fox News.

Fox News also reported Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, told Fort Lauderdale lawmakers at the Oct. 21 city council meeting that the new ordinances would have a positive effect.

"Feeding people on the street is sanctioning homelessness," Book said. "Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing."

Abbott shook his head.

"These are the poorest of the poor," the 90-year-old said. "They have nothing. ... Who could turn them away?"