To Arnold Abbot, feeding the homeless in a public park in South Florida was an act of charity.
But to the city of Fort Lauderdale, the 90-year-old man was committing a crime.
Abbott and two South Florida ministers were arrested last weekend as they handed out food. They were charged with breaking a new ordinance restricting public feeding of the homeless, and each faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
"One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon," Abbott said.
The conflict pits organizations with charitable intentions against residents and businesses who don’t want their neighborhoods to become magnets for the homeless.
Fort Lauderdale is the latest U.S. city to pass restrictions on feeding homeless people in public places. Advocates for the homeless say that the cities are fighting to control increasing homeless populations but that simply passing ordinances doesn’t work.
"Street feeding programs don’t work," said Robert Marbut, a consultant and expert on homelessness in the U.S. "Outlawing it doesn’t work, either. … You’re never going to have a good day arresting a priest."
In the past two years, more than 30 cities have tried to introduce laws similar to Fort Lauderdale’s, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. The efforts come as more veterans face homelessness and after two harsh winters drove homeless people south, especially to Florida, Marbut said. But he called the laws "gimmicky."
In Fort Lauderdale, the arrests haven’t deterred Abbott, Dwayne Black and Mark Sims. The ministers were back at church Wednesday preparing meals for a feeding at a public park later that night.
Mayor Jack Seiler said he thinks the three have good intentions, but that the city can’t discriminate in enforcing the law. He said it was passed to ensure that public places are open to everyone.
"The parks have just been overrun and were inaccessible to locals and businesses," Seiler said.
Black noted that the ordinance passed after a long meeting after midnight, when many people had gone home. He said he knows there’s a good chance he’ll be arrested tonight, but he wants to be there to "reopen the discussion on this ordinance."
"If that’s what happens, that’s what happens," Black said.
Police said that the men were not taken into custody and that they were given notices to appear in court, where the matter will ultimately be decided by a judge. Police spokeswoman DeAnna Greenlaw said those arrested "were well aware of the changes to the ordinance and its effective date."
Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance took effect Friday, and the city recently passed a slew of laws addressing homelessness. They ban people from leaving their belongings unattended, outlaw panhandling at medians, and strengthen defecation and urination laws, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.
"I’ve never seen a city pass so many laws in such a short period of time," said Stoops, who testified at a City Council hearing on the issue.
Other cities are conducting routine homeless sweeps while some have launched anti-panhandling campaigns, according to the coalition. And many laws continue to target public feedings.
In Houston, groups need written consent to feed the homeless in public, or they face a $2,000 fine. Organizations in Columbia, South Carolina, must pay $150 for a permit more than two weeks in advance to feed the homeless in city parks.
In Orlando, an ordinance requires groups to get a permit to feed 25 or more people in parks in a downtown district. Groups are limited to two permits per year for each park. Since then, numerous activists have been arrested for violating the law.
They’ve drawn national attention, with some focusing on the contrast between the vacation destination of the Orlando area and the poverty in its surrounding cities.
"I think cities have grown tired of the homeless situation, and businesses and residents complain about the homeless population," Stoops said, citing the conflict between business needs and the needs of the homeless.