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Why Did Fort Lauderdale Police Arrest an Old Man for Feeding Homeless People?

The rationale for Fort Lauderdale’s anti-homeless ordinance has everything to do with land and money.

Serving food at a shelter kitchen. (Photo: Geoffrey Dudgeon)

Last Sunday, on November 2, 90-year old Arnold Abbott and two pastors were charged by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department with giving food to hungry people. For Abbott’s crime, he faces 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. The criminal intends to feed hungry people again, and is prepared, he says, to be arrested as many times as the city can cuff his frail wrists.

Objectively, it seems sad and strange. But to Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, it was an open and shut case – and he wasn’t afraid to say it.

“Just because of media attention, we don’t stop enforcing the law. We enforce the laws here in Fort Lauderdale,” Seiler told local news outlet WPLG.

Jailing and harassing the homeless for living on the street is an old practice. But criminalizing actions that help these humans survive seems indicative of a new moral low ground. Naturally, Seiler frames the city’s position as the righteous one.

“Providing [the homeless] with a meal and keeping them in that cycle on the street,” he declared to the Sun Sentinel, “is not productive,” sounding like conservatives who say the poor are poor because they’re spoiled by welfare. But the mayor’s jousting over morality is a distraction. The rationale for Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance has to do with land and money.

In August, Fort Lauderdale hired property advisor CBRE to guide its real estate policy, which centers around the redevelopment of its downtown. The centrally-located Flagler Village has recently seen new office space, restaurants, and apartments crop up where warehouses and other older buildings once dominated. Following the gentrification script to a T, many working-class blacks who once lived in the area have been pushed out so that the Brooklyn of Fort Lauderdale can blossom in milquetoasty peace.

It’s just the kind of superficial transformation that impresses people like the judges who hand out the All American Cities awards every year. Fort Lauderdale was named one of ten “All American Cities” in June, after completing the rigorous process of filling out a five-page application and talking to a panel for 10 minutes. It may be a meaningless accolade, but for a city that’s long been a Spring Break punchline, it’s a window-sill trophy meant to catch the eye of passerby developers.

Right now CBRE is guiding Fort Lauderdale through a “bonafide renaissance.” CBRE has also expanded its operations in Tampa and its people are the top brokers of Orlando. Besides CBRE, these Florida cities have three other things in common: Bland identities that obscure a violent racial history, local politicians dribbling from the lips about renaissance and the recent passage of some of the most extreme anti-homeless laws in the nation.

In Orlando, 34 percent of homeless people have no shelter, but the city passed laws against sleeping, begging and food sharing in 2011. Tampa did the same in 2013 and this year. Fort Lauderdale now joins its peers in a shameless social hygiene campaign that is picking up steam.

The contemporary way to criminalize homelessness was established in the 1990s in New York and San Francisco, where advisors pressed the city to clear out street people for fear they’d deter developers’ investments. Today, cities all over the nation are following their example so they, too, can undergo their own white-led redevelopment and snatch up tax revenue from a new, richer citizenry.

It makes sense in the cold calculation of finance capitalism. In the past, this may have been the kind of thing that people discussed as a necessary evil, but for Fort Lauderdale’s mayor to essentially beat his chest over the arrest of a 90-year old man for feeding people without homes really does mean something has changed in our culture. It’s possibly a sign of things to come: A harsh society that ditches the pretense of civility and sees itself for what it is, without apology.

At least it’s more honest. And here again, Fort Lauderdale leads by example. Complementing the anti-feeding law are $25,000 earmarked to buy one-way bus tickets for homeless people to, well, anywhere. The honest message: Get out of town or starve.

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