THR Web Features   /   November 11, 2014

Feeding the Homeless, and Other Crimes

B.D. McClay

Chaplin's Tramp eats his boot in The Gold Rush. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A ninety-year-old man is confronted by the police for feeding the homeless: Is this one of Charlie Chaplin’s more obvious satirical scenes, or maybe something from a political cartoon? It's real life, and has happened—twice nowin Florida, where Arnold Abbott was arrested for distributing food to the homeless outdoors. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, feeding the homeless is not technically illegal, but feeding them outdoors is being regulated to the point where it might as well be:

Abbott and two local pastors were arrested Sunday and charged with violating a new ordinance passed last month that restricts charitable groups from passing out food to homeless people in public. They face a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

It’s the fifth ordinance passed in Fort Lauderdale in the past six months that sets restrictions on the city’s homeless. In enacting the laws, Fort Lauderdale commissioners have cited “public health and safety,” saying the feeding restriction will protect the homeless population from potential illnesses. Opponents call the regulations “homeless hate laws.”

One of the ordinances allows authorities to seize a homeless person’s belongings and store them until the person agrees to pay a fee; another bans a homeless person from camping in public.

There is, however, a silver lining here: If you are homeless, Fort Lauderdale will pay for your one-way ticket out of town.

I am sure there is at least one person in the local Florida government who believes that this regulation is really about the health of the homeless, and not about an activity that supports their visible and public presence. So far as I know, however, the government of Fort Lauderdale has not demonstrated any pressing need for these regulations, such as cases where a homeless person was harmed through being fed by efforts like Abbott's.

Regulations aimed squarely at reducing the visibility of homeless people are old news (remember the time Berkeley tried to ban sitting on the sidewalk?). Visible communities of homeless people induce nervousness in the homed, and the homed make the laws. As sociologist Mitchell Duneier points out in Sidewalk, these communities should really have the opposite effect; they're a sign of stability, not chaos. Teresa Gowan, in her book Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco, makes a similar case. (Both of these books, among others, are discussed in the bibliographic essay in our fall issue.)

And while it's true that indoor charities are not as affected by this regulation, it does not take a lot of imagination to understand why outdoor feeding is still necessary and serves a real need. It also should not take a lot of imagination to see why seizing a homeless person's "belongings" and demanding a fine is an excellent recipe for making sure the homeless stay homeless, since they will be unable to accumulate anything useful without losing it.

People are going to be homeless, whether or not the rest of us see them. They will need to sit down somewhere, even if they are not allowed to sit on sidewalks. They are going to have to eat, indoors or out. This does not mean that one has to give them money, or attention, or time; but sharing the public space with them is another matter. It is public for a reason, and belongs to all of us.

John Seiler, the mayor of Fort Lauderdale, defensively notes that the city is also a participant in 100,000 Homes, a "Housing First" initiative. That is indeed good news. So credit where credit is due. Housing First has shown to be extremely effective in helping the homeless. Keep up that particular good work; but reconsider, perhaps, the rest. Erasing every ugly reality from view might make life a little more pleasant for the currently fortunate, but it makes for irresponsible governance and cold-hearted citizens. If arresting Arnold Abbott seems like a joke, it's a joke we are telling at our own expense.

B. D. McClay is the associate editor at The Hedgehog Review.

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