An international firestorm erupted last November over Fort Lauderdale's citing of then-90-year-old Arnold Abbott and the arrests of members of the activist group Food Not Bombs for violating the city's outdoor food-sharing ordinance that passed October 22 — a measure that was part of a trend of "homeless hate laws" being passed around the country as cities try to crack down on problems associated with homelessness.
Mayor John P. “Jack” Seiler’s response to the firestorm — that the city was working with “some 70 churches, [and] some 20 plus organization [that were] all feeding on a regular and daily basis” — was quickly debunked by critics. Even Commissioner Dean Trantalis, who’d been the only commissioner to oppose the ordinance, told Local 10 News, "We can't keep saying that, you know, there are churches and there are facilities to help the homeless when, in fact, they don't exist."
Enforcement of the ordinance has been on hold since early December, and the city is scrambling to amend it as it faces five lawsuits challenging the law’s validity. Meanwhile, some of those 70 churches have retroactively stepped up to share food with the hungry — but not without stepping on some toes, most notably those of Arnold Abbott.
Abbott says local churches have been undermining his work by scheduling competing food sharings at the same time as his longstanding food sharings — a move he called "shameful." He says that Coral Ridge Presbyterian bused individuals away from his sharing in April and that a barbecue for the homeless, scheduled at Coral Ridge for tonight, also interferes with his longstanding weekly dinner. Another church that buses homeless to an indoor feeding, when confronted by New Times, said it would change the time of its meal so it did not interfere with a longstanding weekly feeding by Food Not Bombs. The issue highlights a philosophical divide among homeless advocates, with some conforming to the city's plan and moving feedings inside and others defiantly sharing food outdoors where they perceive the need.
“They know I’ve been out here for 24 years, so it was no accident that they showed up right where I was sharing,” the now 91-year-old Abbott, known widely among his admirers as “Chef Arnold,” stated back in May.
Abbott was referring to the fact that buses dispatched by Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church to transport homeless folk from downtown Fort Lauderdale to what it called its sixth-annual No Strings Attached Banquet on the evening of Wednesday, April 29, had pulled up right in front of his longstanding Fort Lauderdale Beach food-sharing spot and scooped up dozens of his regular clients before he could feed them.
“It certainly affected our feeding. We shared with 30 people instead of the 200 we prepared for,” said Abbott, who founded the nonprofit Love Thy Neighbor following the tragic loss of his wife, Maureen, herself a homeless advocate, in 1991. He also noted that a similar situation occurred on a Wednesday in late May or early June, though he could not confirm the exact date.
Coral Ridge Presbyterian Pastor Duane Mellor, who is also listed on the church’s website as its director of ministry, told New Times in May when asked about the late-April annual event, “The biggest thing is I want to help out the poor in our community.”
When asked about whether the Wednesday-night sharing could become a regular event and whether he was aware that buses from his church had picked up people at Abbott’s beach sharing, the pastor stated that he would have an answer the following day. That answer never came despite repeated attempts to contact the pastor in May and June, nor have repeated efforts by New Times to contact Mellor by phone beginning last week received a reply.
Meanwhile, the church’s July calendar is announcing a “BBQ for the Homeless” this coming Wednesday, July 8, beginning at 4:30 p.m., which includes the exact time frame of Abbott’s sharing at the beach, which begins at 5:30. New Times has been unable to confirm whether buses would be used to bring homeless people to the barbecue.
Mellor’s assistant, Carol Krpata, interviewed last Friday, denied that buses had been sent to Abbott’s sharing to bring people to the April 29 event, though she acknowledged that buses were dispatched to downtown to pick up people. She also denied that the church had hosted a second sharing since then. When pressed for information about the upcoming BBQ, Krpata in turn asked who I represented and who had reported that Coral Ridge’s buses had picked up people at Abbott’s sharings. When my reply was that many had witnessed it, including Abbott himself, Krpata asked me to put her in touch with the chef. Upon my stating that I couldn’t do that, she immediately hung up.
Coral Ridge Presbyterian also has made headlines recently over the resignation of Tullian Tchividjian, a former pastor at the church who is also the grandson of world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham. Tchividjian resigned when an extramarital affair became public.
Abbott, upon learning this past Friday of Coral Ridge Presbyterian’s plans for tonight's barbecue, echoed the disgust he’d expressed after the April incident.
“All the food providers in Broward County know that Love Thy Neighbor has fed the homeless on Fort Lauderdale Beach for the past quarter century, so for them to schedule a food sharing at the same time is shameful,” Abbott said.
In May, Krpata had provided New Times with a PDF file listing many established food sharing sites across the county. Abbott’s sharing, by far the oldest on the list, is noted there as the only option for Wednesday evenings.
Many of the other sharings listed are at churches that are part of the HOPE South Florida network. While Coral Ridge Presbyterian wasn’t on the list since it doesn’t host a regular weekly food sharing, the church is a member of HOPE South Florida, which is partnered with the City of Fort Lauderdale as a provider of a variety of services to the homeless community.
Two other churches in the HOPE network, however, Christ Church in Pompano Beach and the Answer Church in Hollywood, do host regular sharings, the former every Saturday morning, when there are no other sharings, and the latter only once a month, on the second Friday. For these sharings, transportation is provided on a bus owned by Best Roofing, whose owner, former Miami Hurricane football captain Gregg Wallick, is a major booster of HOPE. A pickup spot for the once-a-month Friday sharing is immediately adjacent to Stranahan Park, where Food Not Bombs has been doing a regular Friday food sharing for more than seven years.
Pastor Larry Lacy of the Answer Church, upon learning that his one-Friday-per-month sharing coincided with Food Not Bombs’ weekly sharing, indicated that he would seek another day to share food. “The last thing I’d want to do is interfere with an outdoor food sharing,” said the pastor, who also spoke out last year in opposition to the food-sharing ordinance.
Pery Canan, a member of Christ Church in Pompano, according to a church source, is former chairman of the board for HOPE going back a decade – then known as Shephard’s Way – and in recent years has worked as a volunteer with the organization. While acknowledging that he was recently hired by HOPE to establish more indoor church food-sharing locations for the group, Canan has maintained strict neutrality regarding the outdoor food-sharing ban. Indoor food sharing at churches is not restricted by any municipal law.
Last October 22, Canan had joined dozens of people to speak out at the City Commission meeting the night of the ordinance’s passage. Minutes from that meeting and Canan’s sign-up card to speak were provided by the Fort Lauderdale City Clerk’s office in response to a Florida public records request on Monday.
The minutes detail his commentary from that meeting: “There are meals being served inside at local churches which has been the case for the past 22 years. Meals should be hosted in a dignified way that fosters community and breaks down barriers. He was aware of discussions with HOPE South Florida for a solution to this community problem. He asked the Commission to allow them to work with the City to find a solution. Their goal is to continue serving indoors and to expand to more nights…”
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The minutes then go on to note both Commissioner Roberts and the mayor acknowledging the city’s affiliation with HOPE. “Mayor Seiler said there has been a lot of misinformation on this topic, but the City has been working closely with HOPE South Florida,” the minutes state.
On the card that prospective speakers at commission meetings fill out to speak on a given agenda item, Canan left unchecked the boxes that indicate support, opposition, or neutrality toward the measure. Rather, he wrote on the card four words: “Haven’t read the amendment.”
Canan, questioned Monday evening at the food sharing he hosts at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, a HOPE member church near downtown Fort Lauderdale, held firm to his neutrality line.
“That’s Arnold’s and the outdoor food sharer’s fight,” said Canan in reference to the hotly disputed food-sharing ordinance. He added, “I want people to be able to come inside.”
Regarding his new role with HOPE to establish more indoor food-sharing options, Canan said, “The goal is seven days a week at scattered sites.”