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Awesome Month for FL Man Cited for Feeding Homeless: Colbert Report, People Mag & More

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AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Susan E. Wills - published on 12/03/14

Is a Hollywood contract up next?

In the month since Fort Lauderdale’s new ordinance took effect, banning mass outdoor feedings (without first obtaining the property owners’ permission and providing outdoor toilets nearby), Arnold “Bud” Abbott – the 90-year-old Fort Lauderdale Good Samaritan – has resolutely continued feeding the homeless at a beachfront park and other locations. For his defiant charity, he’s now received a total of five citations (each carrying a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail). The ordinance limits homeless feedings to locations with bathroom facilities, places for washing hands and a way to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold to prevent contamination.

After an eventful several weeks (more about that below), Abbott’s court appearance Wednesday at an arraignment hearing was a bit anticlimactic. Broward Circuit Court Judge Thomas Lynch ruled that the ordinance would be stayed for 30 days – with no further citations or arrests for mass outdoor feedings – to give Mr. Abbott and Mayor Jack Seiler time to reach an accommodation through mediation. Formal charges will not be filed against Mr. Abbott unless mediation fails or hell freezes over.

With the massive worldwide outpouring of sympathy for this aged WWII vet who “wants only to feed the hungry,” there is no way Mayor Seiler – already outmaneuvered by the Abbott publicity machine and smarting from being called fascistic, his city government the victim of an “Anonymous” cyber-attack and the convention and tourist industry threatened – will permit Abbott to spend one nanosecond in jail.

The Mayor has repeatedly expressed his willingness to meet with Abbott and try to reach an end to nearly two decades of testy confrontations between Abbott and the City of Fort Lauderdale, although Seiler has remained firm in support of the ordinance as a necessary public health measure.

"Miami Herald" columnist Fred Grimm provides a revealing look into their long and contentious history. Grimm recalls his earliest encounter with the results of “Bud” Arnold’s advocacy for the homeless. Fourteen years ago, Arnold’s lawyers has just won a circuit court ruling that a Fort Lauderdale zoning ordinance keeping him from feeding the homeless in the city’s parks violated a state law protecting religious activity:

A man lay sprawled on the warm sand just at the base of the sliding board, leaving small children who might have wanted to use the apparatus perplexed. “Daddy,” asked my 5-year-old, “is that man dead?”

No, no. Not dead exactly. Just dead drunk. Like the other five winos who had arrayed themselves in similar repose around the toddler playground, all summoned there by God, or rather his local stand-in, Bud Abbott, to test my liberal sensibilities.  

….

Bud and his feeding crew quickly showed up at the city’s beachfront park, dishing out free meals … But with my kid in tow, my sour perspective was that the saintly Abbott’s mission seemed more provocative than godly. The guy over there peeing on a palm tree didn’t help.

Grimm writes of the tension in many communities “between the individual rights and needs of itinerants and a tourist-dependent community’s right to control the safety, sanitation and aesthetics of parks, beaches and public plazas” and illustrates his point with another anecdote:

Back in 1993, Holiday Park, Fort Lauderdale’s central park, home to a complex of kiddie baseball, football and soccer fields, had become a sprawling vagrant camp. Homeless guys, often inebriated, slept in the Little League dugouts. They camped in bushes. They wandered through the playing fields.

Parents raised hell until the city finally erected a large tent (designed for wedding receptions) at the western edge of the park to serve as a shelter. …

The tent sheltered an amalgam of old drunks and young men on binges of alcohol and bad luck, druggies, cross-country drifters, the freshly down-and-out. It became rife with drugs and cheap booze and prostitution and violence. There was at least one murder, several stabbings.

Finally, in 1999, the city opened  a “proper homeless shelter and assistance center” with 200 beds, free meals, various social services and a multimillion dollar annual budget. Nevertheless, Bud Abbott continued to bring meals to the beach and parks for the past 15 years. He’s been periodically cited and tried three times in circuit court, but never once gone to jail.

A few days after the latest ordinance went into effect, reports Grimm, Bud set the stage for another confrontation –  

[which] erupted when Arnold and his allies showed up with their hot meals at Stranahan Park, which is not so much of a park but the front lawn of the central county library. Over the last few years, the plaza had become another encampment. Nearby merchants and parents escorting their children through an intimidating gauntlet to the library entrance raised the usual complaints – public drunkenness, public defecation, public urination, fights, drug dealing, piles of litter, a god-awful smell.

Regardless, the media and the public are definitely backing Abbott. He told the Orlando “Sun-Sentinel” after his second "arrest" that his phone was ringing every 15 seconds. He’d even had calls from Moscow and Syria.  

But the international calls were small potatoes compared to a 4-minute lampoon of Fort Lauderdale on the Colbert Report last month and the nice write-up Abbott got in “People” magazine.

Recently, the media were tipped off and dutifully covered an event by Abbott’s supporters in which about 100 protesters gathered outside the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, then marched a few blocks and served pizza to some homeless people, according to NBC 6.

On a less festive note, Mayor Seiler was threatened by the “hacktivist group Anonymous” whose creepy video posted online[it’s on youtube, but the link infected my computer with a serious virus] gave the Mayor 24 hours to block the public feeding ordinance or have the city’s computers subjected to attack. On December 1, Anonymous made good on the threats, crashing Fort Lauderdale’s Web site and e-mail, and interfering with several other city government sites, according to “Russia Today.” [Don’t watch the video!]

Given the city’s impressive commitment to the homeless, detailed here,one certainly hopes that the mediation will succeed, the personal and cyber attacks against the City and its Mayor will end, and creative accommodations can be agreed upon to best serve those in need while preserving Fort Lauderdale as a safe community for families and tourists, as well as homeless persons.

Susan E. Willsis a senior writer for Aleteia’s English language edition.

Tags:
Poverty
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