Feeding people who are homeless

December 5th, 2014

“If the homeless want to eat . . .”

“Busted for feeding the homeless in public!” So crowed late-night comedian Stephen Colbert, in character as the loud-mouthed, hyperopinionated host of “The Colbert Report.” He was referring to Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old chef who made headlines in early November. “I say if the homeless want to eat,” Colbert pontificated, “they ought to do so in the privacy of their own wherever those people live. This monster cannot claim he didn’t know better, because he was doing [it] from a church kitchen. For as Jesus said in Matthew 25:35, ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and—look out! The cops are here! Hide the loaves and the fishes!’

Colbert’s satirical routine is one example of the widespread attention Abbott’s case has drawn. The story shines a light on homelessness in the United States, as well as competing interests in coping with and solving it. Comedy aside, people experiencing homelessness do want to eat, and many of their neighbors do want to feed them. Connecting the two, however, can prove difficult.

Chef Arnold’s “good fight”

Arnold Abbott, or “Chef Arnold,” founded the Love Thy Neighbor Fund (LTN) in 1991. It provides many services to the homeless men, women and children of Broward County, Florida, including a feeding program that serves two weekly meals at the beach and in a park. LTN feeds over 1,400 people every week.

But across America, feeding programs like LTN’s have been increasingly regulated. Since 2007, 71 cities have enacted or have tried to enact restrictions on such programs. According to a National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) report released in October, 21 cities now restrict food-sharing programs in some way, usually by regulating the use of public property, requiring permits or setting strict food safety guidelines.

Fort Lauderdale passed legislation in late October setting several rules for outdoor feedings, including (according to the Tampa Bay Times-Miami Herald) “that sites must be 500 feet away from residential areas, have bathrooms or portable toilets, equipment for hand washing and consent of the owner.” Abbott and two local pastors, Dwayne Black and Mark Sims, ran afoul of the new ordinance on November 2. Police arrived with sirens flashing to give all three men citations as they served meals. “One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” says Abbott. The infractions carried a $500 fine or 60 days of jail time.

Abbott has clashed with the city over the feeding program before. In 1999, Fort Lauderdale banned LTN’s beach picnics, offering an alternate location miles from the city’s downtown homeless population. A judge, however, ruled the city had violated Abbott’s First Amendment right to practice his religion freely. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Abbott, “that court order is still in effect.” Abbott has continued the feedings in the same locations he’s long used. “I’m not afraid of jail,” says the World War II veteran. “I spent two-and-a-half years in war. It’s OK. I like a good fight.”

Balancing interests

Why does such seemingly simple, generous action provoke fights at all? Fort Lauderdale’s mayor, Jack Seiler, explains, “You have to balance the interests of everybody in the community. What we always try to do is make sure everybody gets to enjoy our parks.” The most recent ordinance, like others relating to the city’s homeless (laws against soliciting money at intersections, laws against public defecation), arose following some businesses’ and residents’ complaints.

In a written statement, Seiler notes that the feeding ordinance, far from banning the practice, “expands the number of locations where feedings can take place and establishes guidelines to ensure they are carried out under safe, sanitary, and healthy conditions.” Some who work to help the homeless support such restrictions for these reasons. “Feeding people outdoors flies in the face of our efforts to end homelessness,” said Ron Book of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust. “When you feed people out on the streets, garbage gets dropped; that breeds rodents and creates a health and safety hazard for them and [the] general public. Feeding needs to be done indoors.”

Municipal governments also tend to argue that feeding programs don’t make long-term contributions toward solving homelessness. Robert Marbut is a national homeless consultant who doesn’t favor laws that criminalize helping the homeless; yet he also opposes a scattershot, go-it-alone approach from individuals and organizations. “Give me a name of one person who got a job because they were fed,” says Marbut. “You don’t graduate from the street because you ate a Big Mac tonight.” Marbut advocates coordinated, centralized, 24/7 programs that address such core issues as joblessness, mental illness and substance abuse.

Seiler points to such efforts in Fort Lauderdale. They include a Police Homeless Outreach Unit, which makes 8,000 referrals annually to needed social services; the recently approved expansion of the city’s full-service Homeless Assistance Center, the only one in Broward County; and its participation in the 100,000 Homes Campaign to move disabled and chronically homeless people into permanent housing.

“Don’t Feed Our Bums”?

Whatever their stated intent, however, laws that regulate public outdoor feedings often appear to stem from and perpetuate prejudicial attitudes toward the homeless population. In 2010, for example, bumper stickers, T-shirts, and hats reading, “Welcome to Ocean Beach, Please Don’t Feed Our Bums” appeared in California. A joint report of the NCH and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) explains, “These products, modeled after a sign asking residents not to feed bears, embody the messages that homeless people are not wanted and that by feeding them, people are enabling them to remain living on the local streets.”

“The argument that Arnold [Abbott] is enabling people to be homeless is ludicrous,” says Michael Stoops of the Coalition for Homelessness. Supporters of feeding programs contend that such programs are some homeless people’s only access to safe, healthy food. “People do not remain homeless because of outdoor food sharing programs,” states the NCH/NLCHP report. “People remain homeless for reasons that include a lack of affordable housing, shelter space, living wage or significant life events such as divorce, domestic violence or illness.”

If outdoor feeding programs don’t directly address these root causes of homelessness, neither does legislation that restricts the programs. When providers of food cannot meet the standards these laws impose, more people may go hungry than before. Earlier this year, Columbia, South Carolina, began charging permit fees for public gatherings in the city’s parks. The organization Food Not Bombs, which has provided meals for the city’s homeless in Finlay Park for over a decade, suddenly faced the prospect of paying $120 a week in order to do so. “We have no formal organization,” said organizer Judith Turnipseed. “We’re just a group of people who come to the park and bring food and share it with anyone who comes.” (As of October, the city has not assessed the fee. However, where Food Not Bombs fits into currently developing plans to “refresh” Finlay Park is uncertain.)

Save one, save the world

Fort Lauderdale offered LTN two alternate sites that comply with the new ordinance’s requirements. LTN rejected both. “The homeless have the same right to the beauty and placidity of our beach as anyone who comes here from Sweden and Zambia,” Abbott said. “Anybody can use the beach except for one group, the homeless, and that’s what I’m fighting for.”

Abbott’s comments suggest that he sees himself as fighting for justice. Restrictions on food-sharing do highlight a possible tension between what is legal and what is just. The joint NCH/NLCHP report points out that the right to food is “an internationally recognized human right. . . . Food sharing restrictions violate the obligation of respecting and protecting the right to food . . . [and] are in violation of international human rights norms.”

Arnold Abbott is committed to the rights and dignity of the people he feeds. He fears that without the meals he provides, they will dig through dumpsters to find food instead. “Citations won’t stop me,” he says. “I believe I am my brother’s keeper. I’m Jewish, and in Judaism they say that if you save one person, you save the world.” By that standard, Abbott may have saved the world several times over. Perhaps his conflict with Fort Lauderdale will spark not only public attention but also public dialogue about how concerned citizens and their governments can save the world together, too.

This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. 

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