Being a Do-gooder Can Potentially Get You Arrested

There’s been quite a buzz lately about 90-year-old Arnold Abbott’s efforts to feed homeless people through his nonprofit organization, Love Thy Neighbor, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Abbott, a”do-gooder”, as some call him, has been trying to help feed homeless people for the last 20 years and he has been cited several times (his third citation just happened the other day) for violating a city ordinance prohibiting food sharing in public spaces.

Arnold Abbott

Arnold Abbott

At first, when I read some brief Facebook posts about this and the ensuing comments, I felt pretty bummed out and even said so. I thought, instead of preventing crime and helping people in need, the police are arresting a 90-year-old man for helping homeless people?? What’s wrong with these people?

But then I stopped myself from jumping to conclusions and decided to find out more about the ordinance and why it was instituted in the first place.

And here is what I learned:

What is the Fort Lauderdale city ordinance that was passed?

Apparently, the city ordinance requires groups to provide portable toilets, hand washing stations, and a permit for handling the food in outdoor public spaces. The intent is to move these public feedings indoors for safety and sanitary reasons. Opponents say it is a “cleansing” of homelessness effort and part of a national effort to “criminalize homelessness”.

What articles shed information on the issue?

I suspect the reactions most people have (indignation, sadness) are from brief, skim-the surface articles that don’t really talk about the issue in depth. Of course one would be outraged if an elderly man trying to help homeless people would be arrested! For example, this Miami article really does not provide the whole story, so I had to dig further. And this ABC news article does provide a little more information but it doesn’t really address the whole reason why the ordinance exists and all the perspectives about the city’s approach to homelessness.

I found this blog post, which had a personal perspective I found interesting, on why the ordinance exists: charitable organizations leave messes on the street which attract rodents and therefore create a whole host of public health problems. Apparently, Fort Lauderdale is one of the 10 most rat-infested cities in the USA.

In a CBS Miami article, the city of Fort Lauderdale says it is working with churches as part of a plan to address homelessness. Reverend Mark Sims, one of the church leaders who was cited along with Abbott, believes the law is detrimental to homeless people and he said, “I think one of the things we can do is find a more comprehensive plan to be able to feed and house those people who are hungry and homeless and also to care for those people where we do not have enough beds,” Sims said.

Without knowing the whole story it seems that developing a proactive plan is a good course of action.

I am not an expert on homelessness issues, but I am guilty of jumping to conclusions, particularly when it comes to anything involving humanitarian actions. So as you can see, it is important to look at all sides of the story before reacting quickly. The media is pretty savvy with playing up issues without really providing the background information that is so necessary to have before making a judgment call.




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