UPDATE: After Ft. Lauderdale passed a controversial homeless feeding restriction law, Arnold Abbott was stopped and cited by police for feeding the homeless on November 2, 2014. On November 4th, 2014, he was cited a second time.
When we were reporting last week's cover story on Food Not Bombs, one name came up again and again as the man who had started the slow avalanche of legal decisions that made Fort Lauderdale think long and hard about its efforts to prevent large-scale meals for homeless people from occurring in public.
Arnold Abbott has been serving food on the beach just about every Wednesday since 1991. When the city tried to shut down his beachfront operation in 1998,
He filed suit, and in the long legal battle that followed, a judge ruled that until an alternate site was found, Abbott could stay at the beach. By extension, that meant all the other groups that wanted to pass out food could continue doing so in public.
A decade later, the city is still looking for that alternative location.
And last night, he was out on the beach as usual.
Abbott started serving food in memory of his late wife and seems determined to keep doing it until he's done with this life too. "It took five legal battles to win us the right to stay on the beach," he said earlier this month, "and it'll take further legal action to get us off."
By 5:45, a line of what looked like about 50 people stretched from a picnic area off the South Beach parking lot down the sidewalk under swaying palms and a cool ocean breeze. Abbott and a group of volunteers unloaded big metal trays of food they had purchased with grant money and cooked in rented commissary space at the Homeless Assistance Center, where Abbott keeps an office and runs a culinary-skills training program.
On the menu were pasta, rice and beans, salad, cookies, candy... with the kitchen space and quality ingredients that are available to Abbott and his group, the Maureen A. Abbott Love Thy Neighbor Fund, the food was more abundant than what one sees at the average Food Not Bombs sharing in Stranahan Park.
A man who gave his name as Victor, a 65-and-a-half-year-old war veteran who ate slowly and talked at length about his three decades in Fort Lauderdale, said he's a regular at Abbott's Wednesday picnics. He said he had read about the uncertainty facing Food Not Bombs too.
"No government agency has a right to stop Food Not Bombs," he said. "You say they need a permit? They have one. It's called the First Amendment."
Also in attendance were Toni Moore and Kevin Weinstein, two young Food Not Bombs supporters who were a near-constant presence at the SWAMP house during our time there and who helped prepare food for the sharings. Moore said that they're homeless now, sleeping on the beach, and that they plan to leave soon to travel around the country. After dinner, they and some friends walked down to the ocean to swim.
Everyone seemed to treat Abbott as a near-legendary figure. "Some time in the next five years, Arnold Abbott is going to turn 90 years old," said Victor, who is missing a leg and bears a hard assortment of scars. But the volunteers dished out the food efficiently. As the conversation among dinner guests continued, volunteers picked up scraps and folded up tables. One woman sat down to eat, still wearing rubber gloves from serving the food, and said she had learned about the program through her opthalmologist.
And suddenly, where the line of hungry people had been, there was nobody. The food and plates had been packed up in the Love Thy Neighbor van and driven away, leaving behind less trash than had been there before.
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