I was appalled and horrified this past week when I read a story that came out of Fort Lauderdale. It appears that 90–year–old homeless advocate Arnold Abbott and two South Florida ministers were accused of breaking a new ordinance passed by the city which severely restricts publicly feeding homeless people in Fort Lauderdale.
The city believes the sight of the homeless is affecting tourism, nearby businesses and tarnishing the city’s image. So they passed an ordinance against feeding homeless people.
Abbott runs a nonprofit group called Love Thy Neighbour, Inc. He and his charity have fed the homeless at a beachfront location for over 20 years. The two ministers, Dwayne Black and Mark Sims, were working with Abbott as they handed out food to homeless people in a Fort Lauderdale park. All three face up to 60 days in jail, and a $500 fine.
Abbott told a television reporter, “One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon. It’s man’s inhumanity to man is all it is.”
All three have said that they will continue to feed the homeless, both in local churches and in public areas. “I don’t do things to purposefully aggravate the situation,” said Abbott. “I’m trying to work with the city. Any human has the right to help his fellow man.”
The city’s mayor, Jack Seiler, explains that they have been trying to clean up a park which is adjacent to the city library which has become a haven for dozens of homeless people.
Fort Lauderdale isn’t alone in trying this kind of tactic. The National Coalition for the Homeless in the USA reports that in the past two years, more than 30 cities have tried to introduce similar laws. In addition to banning public feeding, laws also ban people from leaving their belongings unattended and outlaw panhandling at medians.
Abbott, and other advocates for the poor and the homeless, agree that there is a problem which needs to be addressed, but that legal steps like this simply don’t work. They have the effect of further victimizing the poorest of the poor, who have nothing and who have nowhere to go.
The situation is made worse in that many of the homeless are military veterans whose lives have been shattered by their service to their nation in conflict zones around the world.
I am reminded of an action taken in Cranbrook by the Ministerial several years ago. There had been an outcry about the number of homeless people on our streets. The homeless were being rousted from places they found to sleep at night.
In an effort both to understand the plight of those who are homeless, and to create a deeper awareness throughout our city, local ministers and pastors and church members stayed overnight in Rotary Park on an April night. I acknowledge that our effort was a tiny thing, but even so it was a humbling experience for all who took part in it.
When I hear stories like this, it makes me appreciate more deeply the profound responsibility and privilege we have to elect people to serve us in government. In every election, we have an opportunity to shape the kind of community in which we wish to live.
Gandhi reminded us that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Others have said similar things. In his last speech, Hubert Humphrey said that “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
The problems of homelessness and economic inequality are huge problems. There are no easy solutions. But the kind of attack shown in the passing of bylaws such as this shows a lack of compassion for the most vulnerable among us. They don’t even come close to addressing the deep underlying issues of such a huge problem.
We have an opportunity this weekend to cast our vote. Our vote says what kind of city we wish to create in this place. For me, economic issues are important, but they are not the only important issues. How we treat people, how we deal with those who have nothing, how we live together with compassion and grace are equally important issues in shaping the future of this city we all love.
The people whom we elect are called to serve us. They serve all of us, not just those with money and power and influence. This weekend, I will cast my vote for the ones I think will serve us best.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook