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A Homeless Soup Kitchen?

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In July 1998, Cooperative Feeding closed on the property. Still the meetings continued, with an array of county officials -- including Jeff Dey from Zoning -- poring over details as small as the size of the parking lot and the location of the dumpster.

Then came the January meeting and the news that the whole project would have to be scrapped because the area's zoning code -- B-2, a combination of residential and business -- would not allow nonprofit social services.

Two years ago the agency faced numerous zoning hassles while trying to purchase the old Musician's Exchange building on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Ultimately the plan was killed by zoning difficulties, and Forman's only consolation was that the agency hadn't been left owning any property that it couldn't use.

Right now the soup kitchen operates out of a rented building on West Broward Boulevard across the street from the Fort Lauderdale police headquarters. Because the lease is month-to-month, Forman is worried that the agency's landlord may kick them out. If that were to happen, there would be quite a few hungry people walking the streets of Broward County. Cooperative Feeding provides 300 hot meals a day, and that's not counting the dry goods (two bags of groceries designed to feed a family of four for a week) supplied by the pantry store. All told, the agency provided 15,600 meals this past March, Kildea says.

None of that has any bearing on County Code and Enforcement Director Shirley Marler's interpretation of the zoning statutes. She points to an e-mail dated May 13, 1997 (several months before the Cooperative Feeding issue had even come up), in which she wrote "... if someone wants to establish a facility to feed or assist or house the homeless, the facility would have to be in a Community Facilities Zoning District." (CFZDs are normally created for specific addresses; to get the site designated as a CFZD, Forman would have to go to the county commission.)

Marler says she has no idea why that message wasn't conveyed to Forman until after the property had been bought. If, however, Forman is looking for someone to blame, Marler suggests the nearest mirror as a likely place to start: "The vast majority of people would, before they actually went and bought property, consult an attorney and go through the due diligence process."

And what of the frequent meetings of the DRC, with its suggestions? "The DRC is an informal committee of department representatives who try to help people through the process on their own time. It is not official."

Although Kildea grants that "perhaps we were somewhat naive in going into this process," he doesn't understand how or why the county would be telling him to add more spaces to the parking lot "and a minute later, in the same meeting, tell us, 'Oh yeah, you've got a bigger problem. You can't do it.'"

Even some experienced zoning attorneys view the county's actions with a quizzical eye: "If you sit down repeatedly with a bunch of department representatives and get to the point of moving around driveways, well, that's a pretty intense look at a project," says Joel Gustafson, a zoning attorney who has been advising Cooperative Feeding on a volunteer basis since the county's decision.

Although Gustafson is hesitant to criticize the county, others aren't shy in voicing their belief that the zoning issue is just a front for an overall effort to force all services for the homeless -- and by extension, the entire issue of homelessness -- into the HAC. "They're just trying to hide the problem," says Forman. "And it's not just the county. The cities are doing it, too."

Meanwhile Gustafson is continuing to talk with county officials, although his main argument is limited to a strained attempt to define a soup kitchen as a "health facility." He's also facing a dilemma in that the more they call attention to their plight, the more the NIMBY effect kicks in. Cooperative Feedings' parcel of land lies tucked among the strip clubs and vacant buildings that line Broward Boulevard west of I-95, an area that is the recipient of a massive revitalization program.

Bernie Kemp, who lives in neighboring Melrose Park and who serves as president of the Broward Boulevard Revitalization Project, flatly rejects the notion that the central county area needs a soup kitchen. "For a long time, we feel the county commissioners have overlooked Broward Boulevard and basically allowed too many questionable businesses to open up there. Now the neighborhood has a bad taste, and the residents are fed up."

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Paul Belden

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