[Fred, one of my two regular ethics issue scouts (Alexander Cheezem is the other, and what I would do without their assistance, I do not know: thank you, thank you, thank you, guys!), flagged this classic ethics conflict several weeks ago.]
Some sources reported that a “90-year-old man was arrested for feeding the homeless.” This set off typical fact-free indignation on the social media and talk shows, not to mention the angry e-mails from around the world: Charity illegal??? A kind old man arrested just for trying to help the poor! Cruelty!!! ARGGGHHH!!!
Naturally, this was not what really happened.
For 23 years, since he was 67, 90–year-old Arnold Abbott and his non-profit organization, Love Thy Neighbor, have provided food for the homeless at a public beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Wednesday of every week at 5:30 p.m. This year, on October 21, the City of Fort Lauderdale Commission passed an ordinance that banned such food distributions in public. The ordinance required that organizations distributing food outdoors would have to provide portable toilets for use by workers and those being fed. It’s a health and safety regulation, for the benefit of homeless and vulerable. A few days after the ordinance took effect, on a Wednesday, at a bit after 5:30 PM, Abbott was approached by police officers and cited for violating the ordinance. He was not arrested. He was told that he must appear in court.
After Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler was called everything from a monster to a Republican (he’s a Democrat), someone finally asked him what the ordinance was all about and questioned his police department’s treatment of the kindly senior. “We hope he feeds, ” Seilor said. “He has a very valuable role in the community. All we’re saying is he can feed the next block over. He can feed at the church. We want them to be in safe secure settings. We wanted them to be in a sanitary matter. We them to have facilities available before and after.” That seems reasonable.
Seiler has also offered an explanation for the ordinance, which was backed by the Chamber of Commerce, that sounds more, well, Republican, saying that providing the homeless food in public only enables homelessness, and that Fort Lauderdale wants the homeless to use government and church services. “If you are going to simply feed them outdoors to get them from breakfast to lunch to dinner, all you are doing is enabling the cycle of homelessness,” Seiler says. Well, that’s debatable, but it isn’t unreasonable.
Still, it’s hard to teach old humanitarians new tricks, and Arnold is defiant.
“I don’t plan to give up the beach,” he told reporters. He’s going to challenge the citation, and could spend up to 60 days in jail and have to pay a $500 fine. Since the initial charge, he’s been cited multiple times. This fight isn’t new: Abbott sued the City of Fort Lauderdale in 1999 when it tried to stop him from feeding the homeless on a public beach. Abbott won the case three times in circuit court and twice in the court of appeals. But there was no ordinance then.
Your first holiday season Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is this:
Who is wrong here: the 90-year-old humanitarian for defying the law, or the City of Fort Lauderdale for charging a kind old man for feeding the hungry?
The Mayor says: “Arnold thinks he can feed wherever he wants and the laws say differently. Despite the fact that he’s a super nice guy and he’s a gentleman and a kind soul we have to enforce the law.”
That’s my answer. One can argue about the wisdom of the law, but that’s irrelevant. It’s also irrelevant that Arnold is 90, and that he’s been doing this for a long time. What should the city do, have a special dispensation that allows really old people to break laws if they disagree with them? Should it just let Arnold do whatever he wants, and enforce the law against everyone else? Or should Arnold be allowed to veto the law all by himself, because he knows best?
Few laws work perfectly, and this is a perfect example. If all efforts to feed the homeless were performed as responsibly and reliably as Arnold’s no such ordinance would be necessary (assuming that one is necessary). Laws have to apply to everyone, however. Arnold is s sympathetic figure, and he’s playing the media like a Stradivarius, but essentially he’s using his age as an excuse to violate the law.
He’s the one in the wrong here.