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There’s a Lot More to the Story of the Ft. Lauderdale Man “Arrested” for Feeding Homeless

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AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Susan E. Wills - published on 11/09/14

"Mean" Mayor Seiler vs. 90-year-old Good Samaritan doesn't tell the real story

It makes such a great story line: “Fascistic Mayor of Ft. Lauderdale has Good Samaritan Jailed for Feeding Homeless.” But life is rarely so black-and-white and it’s easy to fall into this trap. My colleagues could confirm my gullibility, forwarding a couple of fictitious articles that were, in fact, too good or too awful to be true.

But as our name (Aleteia) and reputation is all about the truth, I want to set the record straight and tell a much more wonderful story about Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old Good Samaritan, that the media is largely ignoring.

First, of course, Mr. Abbott was never arrested for violating the new city ordinance of Ft. Lauderdale that went into effect on November 1. He has been given two citations for violating the ordinance. He wasn’t handcuffed, taken into custody, booked or jailed. He has a bit of a history of putting the homeless above city ordinances and has appeared in Court to defend his actions in the past. To the best of my knowledge, he has always prevailed.

Second, Ft. Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler is far from being the miserly Scrooge of some media accounts. In a press release Thursday, the Mayor described some of the many initiatives on behalf of the homeless that the City of Ft. Lauderdale has pioneered and conducted in the past two decades:

1.   Ft. Lauderdale “was the first city in South Florida to establish a dedicated Homeless Assistance Unit as part of its Police Department. This Unit makes approximately 8,000 referrals a year working with the homeless to provide them with access to housing, critical medical care and social services.” He added that this “award-winning initiative … has been replicated by local, state and national police departments and law enforcement agencies across the country.”

2.  The City has “the only full service comprehensive Homeless Assistance Center in Broward County,” which it founded in 1999. The City Commission recently passed an ordinance (with a unanimous vote) “to expand the size and scope of operations to accommodate more beds and serve more homeless” in other ways.

3.  Ft. Lauderdale is “one of only 235 communities in the United States taking part in the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a national effort to move disabled, chronically homeless people from the street to a place of their own.” Unlike other programs, the homeless are not required to go through addiction counseling and job training before being eligible for their own housing.

4.  The City works in partnership with Mission United, an organization that helps provide “housing and social services to homeless veterans.”

5.  Ft. Lauderdale also works with and provides funds to organizations like the Broward Partnership for the Homeless, Housing Authority of the City of Fort Lauderdale, Salvation Army, United Way, Hope South Florida and the Task Force for Ending Homelessness.       

Third, the new ordinance does not ban feeding the homeless. It was not motivated by a desire to drive them to another city or to “criminalize homelessness” as Michael Stoops with the Coalition for Homelessness in Washington, D.C. described it, as being part of a national trend. The ordinance regulates outdoor mass “feedings,” but continues to permit feeding the homeless indoors, in churches and public buildings where handwashing, bathrooms, refrigeration and other health and food safety practices – such as keeping hot and cold foods at the appropriate temperatures – are available.  
Ron Book, chair of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust explains the rationale for such an ordinance: “feeding people outdoors flies in the face of our efforts to end homelessness. When you feed people out on the streets, garbage gets dropped, that breeds rodents and creates a health and safety hazard for them and general public.” He added, “Feeding needs to be done indoors.”

Mayor Seiler also pointed to the public health and safety factors behind the ordinance banning outdoor mass feedings: “we have a responsibility to ensure that all of our public spaces are accessible and can be safely enjoyed by everyone – families, children, residents and visitors.”

And now to the very heart-warming story of Arnold Abbott, the man at the center of this hullabaloo.

The Rev. Dwayne Black, pastor of The Sanctuary Church, called Abbott “the Mother Teresa of feeding programs” and added that “he does it to honor his late wife; he loved her so deeply.”

At 90, Abbott has difficulty walking but there’s nothing wrong with his heart. He’s a World War II veteran (awarded two Purple Hearts) and a journalism grad who worked as a traveling jewelry salesman until moving to South Florida in 1970. There he met and married his late wife, Maureen. They ran a local jewelry business until her accidental death from a fall in 1991. One of the virtues he most admired about Maureen was her concern for the homeless. Together, they’d drive around town, handing out food and cash whenever they spotted someone in need.

After her death, Abbott founded Love Thy Neighbor as a way of honoring her memory. Since then he has provided, by his estimate, one-half million home-cooked hot meals to the homeless in Broward County. What marks him as a genuine “mensch” is that he doesn’t just dole out peanut butter sandwiches or mac ‘n’ cheese, as if the homeless should be getting calories by the easiest and cheapest means possible. He feeds them like honored guests.

“Chef Arnold,” as many call him, strives to offer food that is a “joy to behold and a pleasure to the palate” (as Love the Neighbor notes). On the typical menus are: “two entrees, a starch, sauteed or steamed vegetables, fresh salad, fruit, chips, cake, candy and drinks.”

But he does much more, too. Chef Arnold created and runs Love Thy Neighbor’s no-cost, nine-week Culinary Skills Training Program. Homeless individuals are offered training “in every aspect of cooking and sanitation,” providing “them with a career with no limits.” When they complete the course, “trainees can continue without cost to McFatter Technical Center for advanced culinary studies.” Those who choose not to go on for advanced culinary studies are helped to find jobs in the restaurant industry. His work has helped many turn their lives around, as several testimonies on the website attest.

While he has never sought the limelight, Chef Arnold appears to be surprised and delighted (in his words “humbled and exalted”) with his new celebrity. He reports receiving phone calls from Moscow and Syria and says his phone rings every 15 minutes. He is determined to continue his twice weekly public feedings in Ft. Lauderdale’s parks — “Citations won’t stop me” — and I think the smart money is on the Chef.

Susan E. Wills is spirituality editor of Aleteia’s English edition.

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