Update, 5 p.m. Chris Wren returned a call and said he would be happy to meet the protestors but that they threatened his assistant. His comments have been added to the end of this post.
Eight members from Food Not Bombs were reportedly arrested Tuesday after meeting at the Downtown Development Authority to protest the new Fort Lauderdale city ordinance that outlaws groups from sharing food with the homeless.
Jillian Pim of Food Not Bombs tells New Times that about 15 people had gone to the DDA to meet with Executive Director Chris Wren to speak about the ordinance.
Wren, Pim says, was not in his office. But the group members were told they could wait until he arrived.
Instead, Fort Lauderdale Police showed up and arrested those who decided to wait.
"Fifteen of us were there to speak with Chris Wren about how we disagree with the ordinance," Pim says. "A woman there said we could wait in the lobby, but the cops showed up. We told them we were allowed to wait for Wren, but they said, 'Nope, you gotta go.'"
As a result, Pim and a handful of others were taken into custody.
Pim took photos of his arrest and quickly posted them on Facebook:
Jillian Pim says she had left the group behind because she's on her third day of a hunger strike in protest of the Fort Lauderdale City Commission's approval of the "Amendment to unified land development regulations," which bans the sharing of food in public spaces.
Meanwhile, the remaining members of Food Not Bombs and others are waiting for their cohorts to be released.
"There's a bunch of us waiting in solidarity for our friends to come out," Pim says.
The law being protested by Food Not Bombs was passed on October 22, as part of a series of laws targeting the homeless. The law has seen open opposition from local churches and homeless advocacy groups, including Food Not Bombs.
A 90-year-old homeless advocate, Arnold Abbot, was arrested Monday for violating the law as well.
The crux of the ordinance deals with applying rules on food handling, providing toilet facilities and hand-washing areas, and requirements on how and when the food should be served, particularly for groups that serve the homeless outdoors and in parks.
Commissioners have contended that passing the ordinance would protect the homeless from illnesses caused by ill-prepared foods. Homeless advocates, however, say the ordinance restricts them from doing what they can for the homeless. Having to provide toilet facilities and hand-washing areas is not only a hassle but expensive -- particularly for nonprofit groups.
Fort Lauderdale began its homeless crackdown in January, when, during a public workshop, it was announced that the city planned to pass ordinances that would effectively ban groups from sharing food with the homeless and make it illegal for the homeless to sleep and to store their personal belongings on public property.
In April, the city passed an ordinance giving police the authority to confiscate a homeless person's possessions after a 24-hour notice and keep the items in storage until the person either pays a fee or can prove he or she has no means to pay that fee.
There's also the encampment ordinance, which prevents the homeless from sleeping, eating, and camping on city property.
The Fort Lauderdale commission has argued that these laws are more about aesthetics; as the encampment ordinance puts it, "the City of Fort Lauderdale has a substantial interest in the revitalization, preservation of property values, and the prevention of the deterioration in its downtown."
Police spokeswoman Deanna Greenlaw tells New Times that eight people were arrested -- seven for trespass after warning (victim requested them to leave and they refused) and one for trespass after warning and obstruction.
We have since learned that members of this group took photos of themselves and posted them on social media depicting how they prevented access to and from a specific suite within the business. The victim contacted police, reported the incident and when these individuals refused to leave they were arrested.
New Times has left a message for the Downtown Development Authority.
UPDATE 5 p.m.: Wren called us back. He said, "I wasn't here, so I missed all the fun and excitement. I was out talking to one of my board members."
He said he was "glad they came over and told me [about their concerns]. That was nice of them to do that. Why did they pick me? That's my first question." He said he was "flattered or insulted; I'm not sure."
He said "God bless" the protestors, and "America was founded on" protest, but they "took it a little to the extreme" and they "threatened my staff; they were freaked out and said 'We've got to lock the door.'"
According to Wren, when the protestors arrived, his assistant called him. He said he would be happy to meet with them at another, appointed time, but the protestors declined to make an appointment and decided to wait in the hallway.
He said that given his staff's discomfort, he did not want the protestors waiting in his office. "Unfortunately a lot of them hadn't bathed in a while, so it was a little weird for people to navigate the halls of a business building."
He said that both his office and the building owner called police.
The Downtown Development Authority collects taxes from and represents commercial businesses. Asked why protestors were arrested for trespass at a public agency, Wren explained, "We are a quasi-public agency. We are a public office, but it is being rented in a private building," he said.
He said his agency "represents commercial property owners -- panhandling and homeless who agitate the outdoor dining customers is a problem. The city is trying to crack down."
He mused: "How we can create a balance and still be respectful to the homeless and still respectful to business owners? I don't think any place has struck the perfect balance. I hope we can navigate that."
He doesn't think "downtown should be the feeding mecca of the county" but "I'm not an expert; I don't know the the solution."
Regarding public feedings, he said that from a "standpoint of human rights, it's great that people a have way to survive, but I also know people who are hardworking who are impacted by that. I think the commission is saying, 'Let's try this and see how it works.'"
He said he would still be happy to meet the protestors. "I'm all about meeting with them. I personally did not pass the laws. I did support them." He said he was still open to get together and have "a meeting of the minds."
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