Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Fort Lauderdale’s fight with Florida’s most famous Good Samaritan goes back decades

A man lay sprawled on the warm sand just at the base of the sliding board, leaving small children who might have wanted to use the apparatus perplexed. “Daddy,” asked my 5-year-old, “is that man dead?”

No, no. Not dead exactly. Just dead drunk. Like the other five winos who had arrayed themselves in similar repose around the toddler playground, all summoned there by God, or rather his local stand-in, Bud Abbott, to test my liberal sensibilities.

I flunked.

That was 14 years ago. Arnold Abbott’s lawyers had just convinced a Broward County circuit judge that a Fort Lauderdale zoning ordinance keeping him from feeding the homeless in city parks violated a 1998 state law designed to protect religious activity.

Bud and his feeding crew quickly showed up at the city’s beachfront park, dishing out free meals to a congregation of wobbly itinerants. Maybe I had succumbed to a bad case of situational ethics. But with my kid in tow, my sour perspective was that the saintly Abbott’s mission seemed more provocative than godly. The guy over there peeing on a palm tree didn’t help.

Arnold “Bud” Abbott has been back in the news lately. And how. Over the last few weeks, news outlets across the U.S. and Europe and Australia have been roiling with outraged stories about how Fort Lauderdale was about to toss the 90-year-old in jail for the sin of feeding the homeless. The mayor’s office has been inundated with outraged emails. People magazine has proclaimed Abbott a hero. Stephen Colbert himself lampooned Fort Lauderdale’s cruel and heartless pursuits.

The city commission had passed an ordinance on Oct. 23, yet another attempt to regulate outdoor feedings, on a night when homeless advocates staged a feed-in protest on City Hall plaza. Everyone knew a confrontation was coming. Sure enough, Abbott was cited twice by Fort Lauderdale police last week for flouting the new law. “Good Samaritan could go to prison!” Australia’s declared.

Except, of course, Abbott won’t be going to prison or jail. Not even Fort Lauderdale’s politicians are that stupid. Last week’s confrontation was just another tussle in the city’s two-decades-long legal struggle to keep homeless encampments out of city parks. Hundreds of cities across the country endure variations of these conflicts. (When I lived in Atlanta in the 1980s, the city was grappling with a variation of begging by young toughs who seemed more dependent on intimidation than charity.)

But Fort Lauderdale, like Miami, has a special attraction for socially disaffected transients — a warm, sunny city at the bottom end of the Florida peninsula, at the bottom end of the nation, a place where drifters tend to stop drifting.

Then there are the county jails that discharge homeless miscreants, often mentally ill, often with alcohol and drug addictions, who might have been arrested anywhere in the county, leaving them right smack in downtown Miami or downtown Lauderdale. There’s a sense in both cities that their streets have become repositories for outcasts from both northern cities and their own shiny suburbs.

For years now, Miami and Fort Lauderdale have wrestled with the tension between the individual rights and needs of itinerants and a tourist-dependent community’s right to control the safety, sanitation and aesthetics of parks, beaches and public plazas. Back in 1993, Holiday Park, Fort Lauderdale’s central park, home to a complex of kiddie baseball, football and soccer fields, had become a sprawling vagrant camp. Homeless guys, often inebriated, slept in the Little League dugouts. They camped in bushes. They wandered through the playing fields.

Parents raised hell until the city finally erected a large tent (designed for wedding receptions) at the western edge of the park to serve as a shelter. It was a mistake that nearly did in businesses along that stretch of Federal Highway. Publix threatened to move its supermarket away (and later did). Finally, Fort Lauderdale relocated the tent to an asphalt parking lot between the FEC railroad tracks and City Hall.

The tent sheltered an amalgam of old drunks and young men on binges of alcohol and bad luck, druggies, cross-country drifters, the freshly down-and-out. It became rife with drugs and cheap booze and prostitution and violence. There was at least one murder, several stabbings. But with no alternative housing for the homeless, the tent stayed there for years — until December 1999, when the county finally opened a proper homeless shelter and assistance center on Sunrise Boulevard. (The old asphalt parking lot where the tent had stood remains a favorite homeless haunt. About 30 guys were there Friday afternoon, some lounging in camp chairs. “We just hang here,” a man who identified himself only as Sean told me with a shrug. “Some of us like to have a beer.”)

But in 1999, after the county’s new homeless center opened with 200 beds and a multimillion budget ($5.6 million last year) with shelter, food and an array of social services designed to get these folks off the streets, the city figured it finally had the homeless problem under control. Then Arnold and company, operating as Love Thy Neighbor, decided to run a weekly feeding at South Beach Park on A1A. Since then, Abbott and the city have been involved in one legal squabble after another.

The retiree and Fort Lauderdale have been in and out of federal and state court. He’s been cited and re-cited. There have been three trials in Florida circuit court. (He has never, however, been hauled off to jail. In my most cynical moments, I suspect that the attendant publicity — the TV shots of cops harassing this saintly old Good Samaritan — does wonders for Love Thy Neighbor’s fundraising.)

Last week, the confrontation erupted when Arnold and his allies showed up with their hot meals at Stranahan Park, which is not so much of a park but the front lawn of the central county library. Over the last few years, the plaza had become another encampment. Nearby merchants and parents escorting their children through an intimidating gauntlet to the library entrance raised the usual complaints — public drunkenness, public defecation, public urination, fights, drug dealing, piles of litter, a god-awful smell.

It was like 1993 again, but this time in very close quarters. Last year, the city attempted to limit the available sleeping space by planting bushes on the grassy expanses.

The city’s new ordinance, with the likes of Abbott in mind, didn’t outlaw outdoor feedings, which would have run afoul of the courts, but adopted rules requiring organizations to obtain written permission from the property owners and banning feeding spots 500 feet from a residence. Outdoor programs must provide portable toilets.

Basically, the city’s trying to push Abbott out of the parks to some nice church parking lot, where he can carry on with his good works. Abbott, however, said he and his crew will be heading back out to South Beach Park and yet another confrontation with city officials.

The town fathers have sure as hell muffed their side of the story. With outdoor feeding regulations not much different than Miami’s and scores of others cities, they’ve allowed themselves to be painted as cruel outliers, bent on tossing a 90-year-old good Samaritan in jail for doing God’s bidding. All the nuance, the stuff about connecting feeding programs to social services and longtime solutions to homelessness, or the notion that a tourist-dependent community should be allowed to control activities in its parks and beaches — all that has been drowned out by a world-wide howl of outrage.

It’s as if Mayor Jack Seiler, who might have put this imbroglio into some historic context as the latest chapter in two decades of legal wrangling, has been utterly outmaneuvered by an old provocateur. He has allowed this conflict to be framed as godless government fascists out to put a 90-something saint in prison.

In the vacuum left by the city’s inept response, the international media went ballistic. Except heartless me. I guess I flunked that test.