Religious Freedoms Cloudy in the Sunshine State

Fort Lauderdale thrust itself into the religious liberty spotlight as it arrested two pastors and a 90 year-old citizen activist as it attempted to enforce a ban on feeding the homeless.

By Larry Barszewski
Sun Sentinel
October 22, 2014

Fort Lauderdale commissioners ended a marathon meeting early Wednesday by giving final approval to new restrictions on where and how charitable groups can feed the homeless in the city.

The commission didn’t take up the issue until 2 a.m. and passed the new law at 3:30 a.m.

Commissioners heard from the opponents most of the night, as several dozen chanted outside the glass walls of the commission chambers — making it hard for people inside to hear the discussion on other agenda items.

Homeless advocates put together a “mass solidarity food sharing” in front of City Hall prior to the meeting Tuesday evening, and several dozen held up signs facing the chambers in protest.

“Blood, blood, blood on your hands. Shame, shame, shame on [Mayor Jack] Seiler,” they called in unison as the commission discussed an unrelated issue.

“Hey, Jack, what do you say? How many homeless did you starve today?” they continued.

By 9 p.m., with the outdoor protesters still going strong, Seiler asked police officers to move the group back 20 feet to make it easier to hear inside.

The feeding restrictions are the latest in a series of measures enacted by the city. Officials describe them as “public health and safety measures,” but opponents have labeled them “homeless hate laws.”

The new rules say that feeding sites cannot be within 500 feet of each other, that only one is allowed in any given city block and that any site would have to be at least 500 feet away from residential properties.

Commissioners agreed to permit most churches to have indoor feeding programs, even those close to residential neighborhoods.

But the exception did not apply to outdoor programs. Organizations distributing food outdoors would also need the permission of the property owner and would have to provide portable toilets for use by workers and those being fed.

The rules could force organizations such as Love Thy Neighbor, which has been providing weekly meals to the homeless on the beach and at Stranahan Park downtown, to cease those operations.

Irene Smith, who is active with Love Thy Neighbor, told commissioners the weekly feedings give workers a chance to network with the homeless and maybe help them to a better situation.

“The feedings are just considered an eyesore to you guys,” Smith said. “We see these meals as a starting point.”

Earlier in the day, commissioners heard from Ron Book, a city lobbyist who is also chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, who told them they were doing the right thing.

“Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness,” Book said. “Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing.”

The commission voted 4-1 in favor of the new regulations. While Commissioner Dean Trantalis voted no, he said his opposition wasn’t with the feeding restrictions but with other parts of the law that would greatly concentrate social service facilities in Flagler Village and a few other downtown neighborhoods.

Commissioners said they will look at reworking those zoning portions and instructed staff to bring back proposed revisions in 90 days.

Besides enacting the feeding restrictions, the commission this year followed the lead of a number of other South Florida communities and banned the homeless and others from soliciting at the city’s busiest intersections. It has outlawed sleeping on public property downtown, toughened laws against defecating in public and made it illegal for people to store personal belongings on public property.

Commissioners say they’re also working to assist the homeless. In January, the city became part of a grant to provide permanent housing to 22 people identified as chronically homeless. It also runs an outreach program through its police department and supports the homeless assistance center run by the Broward Partnership.

The city’s new budget includes $25,000 to buy one-way bus tickets for homeless people who want to reunite with their families in other parts of the country.

Staff writer Ariel Barkhurst contributed to this report. or 954-356-4556

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