World-renowned five-star chefs and people who pay exorbitant prices to munch on finger food have flocked to our city for the ultra-luxe, big-bucks Taste Fort Lauderdale events — a part of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival taking place this week.
The City of Fort Lauderdale has welcomed the festival with open arms. Earlier this month, commissioners unanimously approved $65,000 in taxpayers’ money to help fund two high-dollar events: a $125 Seaside Eats dinner on Wednesday at the Bonnet House and a $175 Bloody Mary Brunch on Sunday at the Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Unsurprisingly, the move has homeless activists peeved. It was a little over a year ago that the same city commissioners passed an ordinance outlawing public food sharings unless organizers met certain conditions, like providing sinks and toilets. The ordinance was intended to stop people from giving food to homeless people. Activists plan to protest outside both events this week to raise awareness about the City of Fort Lauderdale’s priorities.
“This is worse than hypocrisy,” says protest organizer Jeff Weinberger, an activist with the October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness. “If the city was serious about helping homeless people, they could use that money to house four or five chronically homeless people in an apartment. It could save lives.”
New Times reached out to Mayor Jack Seiler for comment. We'll update this post if we hear back. He told the Sun Sentinel: "The festival wants a little help... If we get people who are used to going to South Beach and they come to Fort Lauderdale and see how we've grown, that will drive economic activity… We've been promoting the upscale image of Fort Lauderdale Beach."
In October 2014, the food-sharing ban was passed in Fort Lauderdale. In the weeks that followed, a handful of activists, most notably 90-year-old chef Arnold Abbott, was arrested after refusing to stop feeding people who were hungry.
It was a PR nightmare for the city. Soon after, a judge signed a motion to prevent enforcement of the food-sharing ban. But it was too late. By then news had broken out internationally of Fort Lauderdale’s so-called "homeless hate laws." It spurred lawsuits between the city and several food sharers who argued the ban was a violation on their First Amendment right to free speech. The suits are ongoing.
“Our city leaders think they are untouchable,” Weinberger says. “It’s only been 16 months since they had huge backlash for passing the food-sharing ban. Then they do this.”
After commissioners approved the funds, Weinberger was fast to work. He wrote letters to Mike Hampton, dean of Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospital and Tourism Management. Then he wrote to chefs and judges of Chopped with the Food Network. Finally, he wrote to Mayor Seiler, the city commissioners, and City Manager Lee Feldman. He asked them to reconsider taking part in the SOBEWFF event.
“We will publicly be protesting both Fort Lauderdale events on the basis of the city’s history of abuse of its most needy and caring citizens,” he wrote. “And for the $65,000 expenditure against the backdrop of that history.”
The letter was signed by more than two dozen homeless-rights advocates, including Father Bob Caudill of All Saints Catholic Food Mission, who is battling with the City of Oakland Park to keep his food kitchen open. Weinberger says he has only heard back from the FIU Dean Mike Hampton.
According to a memo by Feldman, the money for the Bonnet House will be used to hire more people to work in the kitchen to “better serve neighbors and guests” and spruce up the live entertainment.
The Ritz-Carlton’s Bloody Mary Brunch is hosted by the cast of the Food Network's Chopped. The money will be used to “provide a branded photo opportunity experience at the event, as well enhanced entertainment and décor elements.”
The Bonnet House Museum and Gardens protest will take place on Wednesday, February 24, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Activists will hold signs and chant outside on public property.
The Ritz-Carlton protest will take place on Sunday, February 28, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. There will be a food-sharing event taking place across the street from the venue, on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
“We’re literally going to be sharing lunch with people who are hungry right in front of these people drinking $175 bloody marys,” Weinberger says.
Weinberger vows to keep protesting until commissioners reverse the food-sharing law and provide affordable housing to the chronically homeless.
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