Three years ago then-90-year-old Arnold Abbott, a World War II veteran, made national headlines after he was cited in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for feeding the homeless — something he’d done nearly every week for more than 25 years, a passion that had led him to found the Love Thy Neighbor organization in 1991.
For city officials, however, an ordinance had been broken. Speaking with the Sun-Sentinel, shortly after his release, Abbott described his experience, revealing, “A policeman pulled my arm and said, ‘Drop that plate right now.’ Like it was a gun.” Today Abbott is 93-years-old and still fighting — numerous fines and citations — on behalf of Fort Lauderdale’s homeless community, a charitable crusade he admits may not have a successor once he’s gone. In addition to dwindling resources, mounting pressure from the city regarding his weekly feedings have put the organization at risk.
It’s become a familiar story across the country, as cities have struggled to rein in exploding homeless populations, particularly in urban areas. Those that want to assist have faced challenges of their own, thanks in part to more than 70 U.S. cities that have enacted ordinances discouraging just that.
It’s a hurdle that two Atlanta-based activists faced in November after they were cited for giving food to the homeless without a city permit. But with space and manpower limited, many have argued that it’s the most effective method to distribute food and supplies; something a growing number of officials are against.
“They’re trying to make downtown as inhospitable for homeless people as possible. They hope that if they can make it uncomfortable, it will force homeless people to go elsewhere,” Adele MacLean, one of the activists that have received a citation, explained to the Southern Center for Human Rights.
She added, “We believe that everyone should be welcome downtown, and that includes people who have the least.”
Largely tasked with finding their own solutions on a local level, cities have responded by enacting a series of regulations, including the one that MacLean was cited for that requires “temporary food service establishments” to obtain a permit. While individuals and charitable groups are technically excluded from this requirement, Atlanta officials insist that it includes feeding the homeless, prompting the SCHR to write a letter on behalf of MacLean and others that read in part that they “Hope under the next administration, Atlanta will become known as a place where all people are met with generosity, compassion, and fellowship — regardless of whether or not their neighbors have applied for a permit.”
Across the country, Mohammed Aly, a 28-year-old lawyer and activist, is fighting officials and even some of his own neighbors in his quest to help a camp of upward to 400 homeless people throughout Orange County, California. “Put yourself in their position: Would you want a toilet, or would you not want a toilet? It is a question of basic empathy,” said Aly to the Washington Post.
Finding the right balance between empathy and public safety has been a challenge, with homeowners, officials and other members of the community voicing their concerns over violence and the potential for disease — something cities like Houston have responded to by providing regular “power washes” of homeless encampments and areas. Still, it’s not a long-term fix by far. While sanitation helps, it does nothing to address issues like mental health, poverty or other contributing factors.
Read the full story at Atlanta Black Star - January 2018