Fort Lauderdale Business Owners: We Back the City on Homeless Feeding Regulations
Although the issue of sharing food with the homeless is viral right now, when the TV news station vans drive off, the city's businesses in downtown will still be there.
Some-business owners like Robin Merrill from the Upper Room Art Gallery are taking their support for the new food sharing regulations to the Twitterverse. Before Planting Peace President Aaron Jackson popped up in front of City Hall with 30 pizzas yesterday, Merrill posted a status backing the city.
"I believe the Earth belongs to everyone, whether you have a roof over your head or not. But being a Good Neighbor is another thing. I would enjoy local homeless who are respectful and clean up and courteous," posted Merrill. "But most here are littering, relieving their body in front of our stores, and shunning any support services offered to them except food. I'm only talking about this street. The demographics of homelessness are very diverse, and we need to support the variety of outreaches we have."
On the status, Merrill commented with photos of the debris left in front of her business:
Later, Merrill, a Christian missionary who says she suffers lung and nerve damage from years of working with the poor in the Philippines, told New Times the issue goes beyond the right to be fed. "We did open-air feedings all the time in the Philippines, so why would I be opposed to it here?"
She added that the issue has "gotten blown out of proportion" and that the new regulations on outdoor food sharing are not enough.
"These laws are not strong enough," said Merrill. "We have some mentally ill homeless that have been there for over a decade. We're calling the police on literally the same people. Guys who are screaming death threats at the top of their voice... who refuse to get help."
The issue is nuanced for Merrill, who also blames the city for poor communication.
"The city has come at the issue too little too late, and that's for darned sure, and now they're really getting hit hard," Merrill said. "They're not blameless, but in this regard, I do fully support these ordinances, and I feel that they need to be tweaked, and the government has promised that they will. This is going to be a work in progress."
When asked if the city should provide a list of indoor places for the homeless to be fed, Merrill doubled down.
"People kicked the can down the road a little too long, and now that they're trying to fix it, there's a backlash. The city has big communication issues... It shouldn't be NGOs handing out lists of where to get fed."
In 2010, Broward County Public Schools' Student Services Department released a "Homeless Survival Guide" with a list of places to go for meals.
While 90-year-old Arnold Abbott was feeding the homeless inside the Fifth Avenue Temple Church of God after debating Mayor John P. "Jack" Seiler, the Riverside Market's Facebook page featured this November 9 status:
General Manager of the Riverside Market Julian Siegel agrees with Merrill about the city's handling of the issue.
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"Everyone is working as fast as they can, as expeditiously as possible, to go ahead and resolve this issue. Personally, I'm not a fan of the feeding on the lawn by the library, because I have children and we like to ride our bikes to the library," said Siegel. "My theory, feeding is a Band-Aid, not a solution. These activists want to threaten my family and my business? Insane."
Siegel added that he's meeting with Fort Lauderdale Police over the alleged threats to his business and that he already does what he can for the city's homeless.
"We took a derelict building in a residential neighborhood and turned it into a craft beer mecca. We do blanket drives through Yelp; we do whatever we can. To go head and get threats from Food Not Bombs is insulting," Siegel said. "If the city has ordinances in place, let's not try to get arrested. We respect that everybody has a right to a difference of opinions. Our intention is not to perpetuate an online lynch mob but to provide clarity where it was obviously lacking."
Chet Beers, who runs a Christian group called Love Bags and distributes business forms in neighboring Sunrise, has been serving food to the homeless for four years. Beers says he's served them between Parker Playhouse and Federal Highway every Tuesday night for four years, with a bag including a water bottle and a can of tuna, among other snacks. Except last Tuesday.
"There's things in the ordinance that are very tough," said Beers, who is not interested in violating the new rule. Instead of handing out food last Tuesday, Beers and others from Love Bags handed out gift cards to Winn-Dixie. "I'm not in full agreement with what they decided, but we will honor the ordinance."
Beers said he knows members from groups like the Homeless Voice and Planting Peace, who are openly defying the ordinance by serving pizzas in front of City Hall.
"We do things differently... We've been sort of under the radar, and maybe that's a good thing," said Beers, who plans to continue distributing gift cards with Love Bags tonight, between Parker Playhouse and Federal Highway. He said he's spoken with Fort Lauderdale city officials from the code compliance and zoning departments. "I'm kinda confused about the water; can I have water?"
Mayor Seiler himself agreed the issue was not handled well on a Daily Broward interview from November 10.
"We as a city probably should have come out on front of that issue," Seiler said.
"I know the city is trying," Beers said. "But not like this; don't make it a struggle for me to give someone a sandwich."
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