Fort Lauderdale Officials Evade Questions About Homeless Feeding Ordinance

Fort Lauderdale Officials Evade Questions About Homeless Feeding Ordinance

Jeff Weinberger is an activist who works on homeless issues.

If Fort Lauderdale officials, including newly reelected and now three-term Mayor John P. "Jack" Seiler, are as serious as they claim to be about working with the multitude of food sharing groups that provide daily meals to the city's homeless community, they sure have a funny way of showing it.

On at least two occasions, people have sought the city's guidance on how to to come into compliance with the city's so-called homeless feeding ordinance, only to be ignored or given the runaround.

Last year, the city passed a series of ordinances designed to drive away the homeless population. One of those required groups that shared food outdoors to provide hand-washing stations, wastewater capture, and portable toilets -- none of which applies to outdoor food vendors, by the way.

This, of course, backfired when the ordinance took effect on November 1, and more than a dozen meal providers, most famously 90-year-old WW2 veteran Arnold Abbott, defied the restrictions and began receiving citations for sharing food. All still face the prospect of fines and jail time while the city has become the butt of Colbert Report jokes and a recipient of international scorn.

Seiler insisted that "the city is not banning groups from feeding the homeless," but efforts to comply with the ordinance's restrictions have been met with a wall of silence by a host of city officials.

In December, Peanut Butter and Jelly Project sought to comply with the ordinance's requirement that food sharers provide portable toilets to those they feed. Members of the nonprofit provide hundreds of sandwiches every week to downtown homeless folk. The group said it would provide port-o-potties, including service, and the group's founders, Laura Florio and Micah Harris, sought information on exactly how and where to deploy them.

"We didn't want to get cited because we work off donations," Harris says. "We didn't want to use that money from donors that was meant to be spent on the homeless to pay citations."

Harris says they were prepared to provide "a hand-wash station and a portable bathroom" but didn't want to just plop it down somewhere. "If we set up on the corner, they would tell us can't set it up on the corner," he worried. He said that his group believes in working with the city on solutions to the homeless problem but that he could not get a clear answer on how to go about providing portable toilets. He says that they have continued to give food and haircuts to homeless individuals in recent weeks and that police he encountered have been supportive.

He added, "We wish the city would step up and provide public restrooms."

Meanwhile, I have for months sought clarification from the city regarding how exactly one would comply with the requirement that outdoor food distribution centers "shall provide written consent from the property owner to conduct that activity on the property" -- to no avail.

On November 6, immediately following the initial issuance of citations to Abbott and others, I was working on a freelance article for New Times and attempted to contact Eric Engmann, a Planner II in the city's Urban Design and Planning Division, for an explanation. Engmann, via email, immediately passed the request to the city's public information officer, Chaz Adams, and set in motion a series of communications that more than once traversed the inboxes of at least two other city administrators, Jeri Pryor and Hal Barnes.

On February 6 -- three months after the initial request -- Pryor suggested contacting Engmann to get the answers.

Engmann has not returned calls or emails since.

History, meanwhile, suggests that the city's intransigence in such matters should hardly come as a surprise.

In March 1998, Arnold Abbott, assisted by his attorney then and now, John David, applied for a permit to share food on Fort Lauderdale Beach. It took nearly a year for then-City Manager Floyd Johnson to respond, which he did in February 1999, with a denial of the permit. A follow-up letter from Johnson in March of that year concluded with an ominous threat of arrest and a demand: "Please govern yourself accordingly."

Abbott would go on, through a series of court cases, to win the right to keep sharing food based on the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Today, more than 15 years later and again under attack as he seeks enforcement of that original injunction, he has been joined by at least four other parties that have filed suit against the city on a variety of grounds so they can share food with those in need without fear of retribution.

As the erstwhile city manager once wrote to Abbott, the message being sent to city officials by these meal providers, driven by the various mandates of faith, morality, or politics, couldn't be clearer: "Please govern yourself accordingly."

What remains to be seen or heard is whether some city official will stand by the line Harry Truman once made famous: "The buck stops here."

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