"One of the arguments from those who pushed the homeless ordinance and backed it is that the homeless are driving people away from local businesses. We're saying 'no' to that argument," says Mark Sims, pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs. "We’re saying no, maybe they’re not driving people away, and we want to continue to raise the issue of compassion."
With that, Sims has begun a program that gets local businesses involved in not only helping to feed the homeless but to also get business booming. The program, which he's dubbed Pay It Forward Fort Lauderdale, has residents involved to provide services to those who need it. The basic premise: to have customers donate cash at whenever business they dine at. The business then takes those donations as "payment" to serve the homeless in their restaurant.
"The idea originated from a Facebook post someone posted on my personal page about a pizza shop in Philly," Sims says. "Customers gave whatever they had to the pizzeria, along with a Post-It note and the owner of the pizzeria would remove the Post-It and provide food to a homeless person who walked into the shop."
The Post-It notes, Sims explains, are to keep track of the cash as well as to give the donator a chance to write a note of encouragement to the respective person their donation is going to feed. Sims says that so far, he has at least two businesses onboard but that the excitement from those involved has been palpable.
"I've been doing this for a few weeks now, and the one thing that has stood out is that people are really excited about the idea," he says. "They know and see that there's a homeless problem in this city, and let me tell you, people are incredibly compassionate and want to help. The more we’ve begun to pass this concept along, the more people have jumped in to be a part of it."
Sims has been working with Slice Pizzeria, located at 108 SE First St. in Fort Lauderdale. Sims says he walked into the pizza shop and spoke with owner Nicholas Gatos. "I showed him the video that had been passed on to me," he says. "And I said what if we did this together, we could really make a difference."
Sims then provided a bulletin board for Gatos and got the word out. Gatos says that business has actually gone up since he and Sims began the program and that Slice's customers have been incredibly receptive.
Sims has been at the forefront of the Fort Lauderdale homeless issue since the city passed the ordinance.
Back in November, Sims was the first person — along with World War II vet Arnold Abbott — to be cited for breaking Fort Lauderdale's so-called "public feeding" ordinance. The two men face a $500 fine and 60 days in jail each. The 90-year-old Abbott became the face of homeless advocates with their refusal to yield to a law that many believe flies in the face of decency and compassion. Abbott has defied the law and continues to serve food to the homeless on Fort Lauderdale Beach and in Stranahan Park.
For his part, Sims has kept serving the homeless and needy through his church but has also managed to bring in big-time attorneys Bill Scherer and Bruce Rogow to sue the city on behalf of the homeless and challenge the restrictions on outdoor feedings laid down by commissioners.
Abbott's case and Sims' lawsuit have forced a judge to suspend citations and fines for breaking the ordinance until the two sides can come to an agreement on how to resolve the issue. Sims has a hearing on his outstanding criminal citation on March 30.
For now, though, Sims says he's leaving that part to his attorneys while he and his congregation continue to help the homeless any way they can.
Sims says he's gotten a local laundromat involved in helping. Members of his church have been donating money to buy $6 prepaid laundry cards from the business and then handing them out to the homeless so they can go and do their laundry. The church also purchased detergent and put them in ziplock bags to hand out along with the cards.
"The homeless folks we've been serving are excited," he says of the laundromat idea. "It gives them the opportunity to be dignified and wash their own clothes. And it’s giving the laundromat business."
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Sims says he'd next like to get a local coffee shop involved to be a part of the Pay It Forward program.
"If we can feed the homeless, give them coffee in the morning, and an opportunity to wash their clothes," he says, "we'll not only help them in the best way possible but we'll continue to prove the doubters wrong. Helping the homeless is a good thing for this community."
Anyone interested in getting involved with the program can visit the Pay It Forward Facebook page.