To Arnold Abbott, feeding the homeless in a public park in South Florida was an act of charity. To the city of Fort Lauderdale, the 90-year-old man in white chef’s apron serving up gourmet-styled meals was committing a crime.
For more than two decades, the man many call “Chef Arnold” has proudly fired up his ovens to serve up four-course meals for the downtrodden who wander the palm tree-lined beaches and parks of this sunny tourist destination.
Now a face-off over a new ordinance restricting public feedings of the homeless has pitted Abbott and others with compassionate aims against some officials, residents and businesses who say the growing homeless population has overrun local parks and that public spaces merit greater oversight.
The story certainly sounds like an outrageous restriction on charity. But did the media get the story right?
The actual ordinance appears to merely restrict feeding sites to be more than 500 feet away from each other and 500 feet from residential properties, and allows only one group to share food with the homeless per city block.
According to the mayor of Fort Lauderdale,
Contrary to reports, the City of Fort Lauderdale is not banning groups from feeding the homeless. We have established an outdoor food distribution ordinance to ensure the health, safety and welfare of our community. The ordinance does not prohibit feeding the homeless; it regulates the activity in order to ensure it is carried out in an appropriate, organized, clean and healthy manner.
While the ordinance regulates outdoor food distribution, it permits indoor food distribution to take place at houses of worship throughout the City. By allowing houses of worship to conduct this activity, the City is actually increasing the number of locations where the homeless can properly receive this service.
At recent outdoor food distributions, citations were rightly issued for non-compliance with the process enacted to ensure public health and safety. Contrary to what was reported in the media, no one was taken into custody. Had these activities taken place indoors, at a house of worship, they would have been in full compliance with the ordinance.
This seems to be more defensible ordinance, since there are genuine concerns to be raised with frequent mass feedings in outdoor locations. Since the city places no restrictions on feeding the homeless at “houses of worship,” why wouldn’t churches simply serve the meals within their own buildings?
Chronic homelessness is a difficult problem, and local politicians deserve our sympathy and support in their attempts to find solutions. At least on this particular point, Fort Lauderdale appears to have passed a prudent ordinance. Rather than passing along misinformation (such as that the city has banned the feeding of the homeless) we should instead be encouraging churches to invite the hungry into God’s house to receive both daily bread and the “bread of life” (John 6:35).