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Feeding the homeless: Act of charity or a crime?

By KELLI KENNEDY

Associated Press FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - To Arnold Abbot, feeding the homeless in a public park in South Florida was an act of charity.

But to the city of in Fort Lauderdale, the 90-year-old man was committing a crime.

Arnold and two South Florida ministers were arrested last weekend as they handed out food. They were charged with breaking a new ordinance restricting public feeding of the homeless, and each faces up to 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 South Florida television station WPLG (http://bit.ly/1qpgywd).

The arrests haven't deterred the group. Ministers Dwayne Black and Mark Sims were back at church Wednesday preparing meals for a feeding at a public park later that night.

"I don't do things to purposefully aggravate the situation," Abbott, an advocate for the homeless, said. "I'm trying to work with the city. Any human has the right to help his fellow man."

Police said that the men were not taken into custody and that they were given notices to appear in court, where the matter will ultimately be decided by a judge.

The ordinance that restricts public feeding took effect Friday. It is one of five laws dealing with the homeless that Fort Lauderdale passed in May. The others ban people from leaving their belongings unattended, outlaw panhandling at medians, and strengthen defecation and urination laws, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"I've never seen a city pass so many laws in such a short period of time," said Stoops, who testified at a City Council hearing on the issue.

City officials did not immediately comment Wednesday. Fort Lauderdale Police spokeswoman DeAnna Greenlaw said those arrested "were well aware of the changes to the ordinance and its effective date."

Advocates for the homeless say cities around the U.S. have been criminalizing homelessness more aggressively since 2006. Some conduct routine homeless sweeps, and others have launched anti-panhandling campaigns, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Public feedings are often a target of the new laws. In Houston, groups need written consent to feed the homeless in public, or they face a $2,000 fine. Organizations in Columbia, South Carolina, must pay $150 for a permit more than two weeks in advance to feed the homeless in city parks.

In Orlando, an ordinance requires groups to get a permit to feed 25 or more people in parks in a downtown district. Groups are limited to two permits per year for each park. Since then, numerous activists have been arrested for violating the law.

They've drawn national attention, with some focusing on the contrast between the vacation destination of the Orlando area and the poverty in its surrounding cities.

"I think cities have grown tired of the homeless situation, and businesses and residents complain about the homeless population," Stoops said, citing the conflict between business needs and the needs of the homeless.

___

Information from: WPLG-TV, http://www.local10.com/index.html

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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