[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. Continue reading