South Florida has lost one of its staunchest — and most visible — advocates for the homeless.
Few captured international attention the way this nonagenarian who clashed with Fort Lauderdale officials repeatedly, and for years, managed. Abbott’s offenses that led to arrests and the threat of jail: feeding the homeless in a manner that often clashed with city ordinances.
Abbott died Friday at 94, his family and attorney told the Sun Sentinel.
At the end, Abbott’s resolve and charm softened feelings.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean J. Trantalis told Miami Herald news partner CBS4 that the city was “truly saddened” by his death. “He was a courageous individual and a champion for the under served. His generosity, compassion, and selfless efforts to assist the most vulnerable members of our community left an indelible mark on our city and led us on a path to a brighter tomorrow.”
But Abbott’s yesterdays weren’t always as bright in his adopted community. Some felt he was breaking the law by flouting city ordinances on how and where to feed the homeless.
Showdowns and honors
In 1991, for instance, he started feeding the homeless people he would see on and near Fort Lauderdale’s beach. The gesture seemed kind. But in assembling volunteers, Abbott was basically providing a social service on the beach, officials believed, and that, they argued, was not legal.
There’d be many showdowns over the years, including an instance in 1999 when police were called out to move Abbott along. The sight would be a common one as Abbott was frequently escorted out of city parks and the beach, along with facing potential fines and jail time.
On Christmas Day 2014, the Miami Herald named Abbott, then-90, one of the “Angels Among Us.” He earned the distinction for his indefatigable efforts to feed South Florida’s homeless.
Founding a nonprofit
In 1991, for instance, he founded the Maureen A. Abbott Love Thy Neighbor Fund, a feeding program he opened in memory of his late wife who had been instrumental in inspiring Abbott to feed Fort Lauderdale’s homeless.
Abbott once told the Herald that he and Maureen would drive around Fort Lauderdale on a mission to help people on the streets. When they saw someone in need he’d stop the car and she’d get out, drop a $20 bill on the ground, and say, “Look, you must have dropped this.”
Her kindness appealed to Abbott.
At the start of Love Thy Neighbor, you’d find Abbott, who was Jewish, inside the kitchen of Fort Lauderdale’s Christ Church helping his team prepare food for those in need. By 2004, the organization evolved to include a culinary training program that also taught its students how to write résumés, dress for success, and handle job stresses — all under the guidance of Abbott and his volunteers.
But in that holiday season of 2014, he had been arrested and so was fighting Fort Lauderdale — again — over a city ordinance that regulated the venues that charitable groups use for feeding the homeless. Abbott’s lawyers argued that the city’s attempt to move him away from parks and the beach, “amounts to a violation of his religious rights,” former Herald columnist Fred Grimm reported.
“No other South Floridian’s humanitarian spirit made bigger headlines than that of 90-year-old Arnold Abbott,” the Herald’s editorial staff wrote in naming him one of South Florida’s Angels. “In his white chef’s jacket, the veteran do-gooder fought the city of Fort Lauderdale for the right to feed the city’s homeless, despite a new, restrictive ordinance. For Abbott to still have the gumption to fight City Hall is nothing less than inspirational.”
During that battle, some of South Florida’s top legal minds — including Bill Scherer, who represented George W. Bush’s interest in Florida’s presidential recount in 2000, and constitutional law expert Bruce Rogow — argued on behalf of the World War II veteran who had come to be known as “Chef Arnold” for his crusading work to dispense “bread and compassion.”
Protesters, about 100 strong, lined up outside of the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse to champion Abbott’s cause. The elderly man stood among them in solidarity and vowed, ““We’re all here for a common cause and we shall beat them. I have no fear whatsoever,” the Herald reported in 2014.
Abbott prevailed in his criminal case, in that he stayed out of jail, though both sides would continue to try to work out a deal even three years later.
Fighting for the underdog
“I’m a scofflaw. I’ve been a fighter for the underdog all my life,” Abbott told WPLG Local 10 in 2017.
It was always a struggle. He called it “a religious calling.”
In 2002, Abbott was successful when he sued Fort Lauderdale after the city tried to curtail Love Thy Neighbor’s distribution of food at Stranahan Park. In 2013, he was named winner of the For Good Awards by the Community Foundation of Broward.
“I just feel that if you’re a human being, you care about your less fortunate human beings,” Abbott testified earlier in court, the Herald reported in 2000.
Abbott was also named “Advocate of the Year” by the Congressional Hunger Center and the National Coalition for the Homeless in December 2014. But by April 2017, Love Thy Neighbor was running out of money. Abbott, at 93, told WPLG he’d have to tap his savings to keep Love Thy Neighbor Fund afloat.
Abbott, a retired jewelry salesman in Broward County, his home since 1970, died two days after the passing of Betty Chapman in Miami, another honored advocate for the homeless who, along with her late husband Alvah, had helped found Chapman Partnerships in Miami-Dade.
Former Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, who defended the city’s ordinances during his tenure, told the Sentinel on Friday that Abbott, “meant well” and “had very good intentions.”
Abbott’s life story
Abbott was born in Beverly, Massachusetts. In 1941, he joined the U.S. Army when the United States entered World War II. He would earn two Purple Hearts.
After the war, he moved to Pennsylvania, where he spent two decades championing civil rights.
Later, in 1960s Mississippi, he drove African Americans to the local courthouse to help register them to vote, a duty that often led to clashes with the police and the Ku Klux Klan of that era, the Sentinel reported in 1999.
Abbott’s survivors include his children Pam Trimble and Robert, Tara and Andrew Abbott, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He did not want services.