Romano: 90-year-old man's arrest for feeding homeless is silly response to real problem

Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old man who heads Love Thy Neighbor, along with other volunteers, helps feed homeless people in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, Nov 5. 2014. [Michael Clary | Sun Sentinel via MCT]
Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old man who heads Love Thy Neighbor, along with other volunteers, helps feed homeless people in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, Nov 5. 2014. [Michael Clary | Sun Sentinel via MCT]
Published Nov. 9, 2014

The man is guilty. Of this, there is little doubt.

Police watched, recorded video and apprehended him in the act.

He was, after all, pretty conspicuous. When you're on the lookout for a 90-year-old World War II veteran wearing a chef's uniform and hat, Arnold Abbott is hard to miss.

Making matters worse for the accused was all the available evidence. Pasta with cubed ham. Lots of it. And, quite brazenly, a white onion celery sauce, too.

Abbott now faces two counts of breaking a week-old Fort Lauderdale ordinance, each charge carrying a possible 60-day jail term and $500 fine.

His suspected crime?

Feeding the homeless.

• • •

I do not mean to make light of the situation. Not for Abbott, not for Fort Lauderdale officials and certainly not for the tens of thousands of homeless in the state.

Whether you approach from a compassionate or a callous point of view, you most likely agree that homelessness is a huge problem in society.

The hardened perspective says that do-gooders like Abbott only encourage the homeless to continue loitering in downtown parks and other public spaces. The softer approach says that ignoring or criminalizing homelessness is not going to make it go away.

I don't know if anyone has the perfect answer, but I'm pretty sure what they're doing in Fort Lauderdale is not it.

"Having done this work for three decades, I've never seen a city pass so many laws in such a short period of time attacking the homeless,'' said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. "The food-sharing law Arnold got caught up in is just the most egregious.''

Abbott and his Love Thy Neighbor organization have been feeding the needy — along with organizing a Christmas party for homeless children and running a culinary school to provide job skills for the homeless — for more than 20 years since his wife passed away.

Fort Lauderdale tried to stop him from handing out meals on the beach 14 years ago, but he prevailed in two different court cases.

This time, the city tried a different approach. The ordinance merely placed regulations on the distribution of food. The type of regulations designed to put Arnold out of business.

The city apparently knew its plan was going to cause outrage. It was the last item to be discussed at a commission meeting, meaning the ordinance was not passed until 2 a.m., and so protesters had to sit through eight hours of other business before getting the chance to address elected officials.

The National Coalition for the Homeless says Fort Lauderdale has joined a growing list of cities that have passed, or are considering, laws banning the sharing of food in public.

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It hasn't been as contentious an issue in Tampa Bay, but we've had our own share of problems. St. Petersburg police made national news in 2007 for shutting down makeshift tent cities by destroying a handful of tents. More recently, Clearwater passed laws aimed at curbing the homeless problem by making sitting or lying down on sidewalks illegal.

I get the problem. Downtown businesses and residents are understandably upset when the downtrodden congregate nearby.

But passing laws and arresting the homeless, or those trying to help, is not a solution. In the long run, it actually increases the cost of care.

The issue is not those who are willing to accept the help of safety net programs, but rather those who have addictions or mental health problems and are not eager to go into the system.

"I think what police in Tampa have discovered is, you can't arrest your way out of this problem,'' Tampa senior assistant city attorney Rebecca Kert said. "The concern is finding a way to get services for the service-resistant people.''

Cliff Smith, manager of veterans, social and homeless services in St. Petersburg, said the city allows churches and other groups to hand out food and blankets to homeless, but encourages them to work with established outreach programs that are serving an estimated 5,800 homeless in the county.

Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council recently approved a $75,000 expenditure for St. Vincent de Paul to expand homeless services.

"The No. 1 issue we're facing every day is there just aren't enough beds,'' Smith said.