“Drop that plate right now!”
Those were the words of a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, police officer as he arrested 90-year-old Arnold Abbott, a homeless advocate who serves hot meals to homeless people twice a week through his Love Thy Neighbor group.
This incident, which gained national media attention, has shed light on the growing number of laws criminalising homelessness.
An October report from the National Coalition for the Homeless, Share No More: The Criminalization of Efforts to Feed People in Need, has documented a dramatic rise in city ordinances aimed at restricting individuals and groups from feeding people who are experiencing homelessness.
This is happening at a time when hunger in general is becoming a larger problem for millions of Americans as a result of the rising cost of food. It was worsened by a “compromise” farm bill passed earlier this year with bipartisan support that cut US$8.7 billion in food stamps.
Abbott's arrest came two days after Fort Lauderdale commissioners passed a new ordinance restricting outdoor food sharing. This is one of many restrictions in the South Florida area that homeless advocates are calling “homeless hate laws”.
Such laws ban the homeless and others from soliciting at the city's busiest intersections, outlaws sleeping on public property, toughens laws against defecating in public and makes it illegal for people to store personal belongings on public property.
“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,” Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless told the Tampa Bay Times.
“The food-sharing law Arnold got caught up in is just the most egregious.”
Abbottt has a history of challenging Fort Lauderdale policies that he considers to be unjust. In 2002, he successfully sued the city to block an earlier effort to shut down his non-profit group's distribution of food at a beachfront city park.
“The city mayor and the commission are puppets of the mega-rich who live in Fort Lauderdale, and they want to get rid of the homeless,” Abbott told the Sun Sentinel.
“There are others out there who feed people on the street, but the city can scare them. I think this law is primarily aimed at us.”
[Abridged from Socialist Worker.]