Ninety-year-old chef Arnold Abbot prepares hundreds of meals each week for homeless people in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the kitchen of the sanctuary church, and he’s been feeding the homeless for 20 years.
But Abbot was in the news two weeks ago -- not for his acts of kindness, but because he was arrested under a new Fort Lauderdale ordinance that outlaws feeding homeless people in public. Last week, Abbot was cited again.
Abbot and two other ministers were arrested as they served food, and each faces 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
“One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” Abbott told reporters.
“I fully believe that I am my brother’s keeper. Love thy neighbor as thy self,” he said.
Abbott has been serving gourmet-style to the homeless for almost two decades, wearing his signature white chef’s apron. Now the nonagenarian is an unlikely vigilante in a face-off with local government, businesses and residents who say that the homeless population is overrunning public spaces.
Last Wednesday, Abbott, undeterred, went out to feed the homeless again along a Fort Lauderdale beach to the cheers of 100 homeless people lining up for food.
“God bless you, Arnold,” some in the crowd cheered, according to the AP.
“Thank God for Chef Arnold. I haven’t eaten all day. He feeds a lot of people from the heart,” 56-year-old Eddie Hidalgo told an AP reporter. Hidalgo said he had been living on the street since losing his job two years before.
The same reporter then watched police videotape Abbott and call him over to the their police car, issuing him a citation. Abbott said that he was just grateful that the citation was issued after he served the food.
Fort Lauderdale is just one of 21 U.S. cities to recently pass restrictions on feeding homeless people, and 10 more cities have plans to do the same.
According to a report released from the National Coalition for the Homeless, legislative action and community pressure is “criminalizing” feeding the hungry -- and pushing the problem of hunger “out of sight.”
“One of the most narrow-minded ideas when it comes to homelessness and food-sharing is that sharing food with people in need enables them to remain homeless,” the report said.
Food sharing is restricted by passing laws that require food permits to distribute food in public, such as on the street or in parks. Another method is stringent food-safety requirements.
One in six people in the U.S. struggles to get enough to eat, according to Feeding America, and failure to serve these populations puts vulnerable people at risk, according to the NCH.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler has said that Abbott and fellow pastors have “good intentions” but the city must enforce the ordinance to make sure that public spaces are available to everyone.
“The parks have just been overrun and were inaccessible to locals and businesses,” Seiler said in a statement.
In Houston, feeding the homeless in public carries a $2,000 fine. In Columbia, South Carolina, groups must buy a $150 permit weeks in advance. Another Florida city, Orlando, requires a permit to feed more than 25 people in public, and limits permits to two per year for each park.