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Arnold Abbott keeps feeding the homeless: Charity or crime?

Arnold Abbott was issued a summons for violating an ordinance that limits where charitable groups can feed the homeless. Abbott was also recently arrested, along with two pastors, for feeding the homeless in a Fort Lauderdale park. 

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Homeless advocate Arnold Abbott, 90, director of the nonprofit group Love Thy Neighbor Inc., serves food to the homeless from a public parking lot next to the beach, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Lynne Sladky/AP

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Despite being charged with violating a new law by feeding the homeless in Florida, a 90-year-old man said he's not deterred and even went back out to serve more food at a public park.

The face-off in Fort Lauderdale over the ordinance restricting public feeding of the homeless has pitted those with compassionate aims against residents and businesses trying to protect their neighborhoods.

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Arnold Abbott, affectionately known as "Chef Arnold," and two ministers were charged last weekend as they handed out food. They were accused of breaking the ordinance and each faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

"One of the police officers said, 'Drop that plate right now,' as if I were carrying a weapon," Abbott said.

Fort Lauderdale is the latest U.S. city to pass restrictions on feeding homeless people in public places. Advocates for the homeless say the cities are fighting to control increasing homeless populations but that simply passing ordinances doesn't work because they don't address the root causes.

On Wednesday night, Abbott and others served a four-course meal by the beach as police filmed from a distance and a crowd of nearly 100 mostly homeless and volunteers cheered their arrival.

Abbott, a World War II veteran and civil rights activist, told The Associated Press that he has been serving the homeless for more than two decades in honor of his late wife. He has several programs, including a culinary school to train the homeless and help find them jobs in local kitchens.

Several police officers watched and allowed Abbott's crew to feed everyone before issuing Abbott another citation.

In the past two years, more than 30 cities have tried to introduce laws similar to Fort Lauderdale's, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. The efforts come as more veterans face homelessness and after two harsh winters drove homeless people south, especially to Florida.

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Mayor Jack Seiler said he thinks Abbott and pastors Dwayne Black and Mark Sims have good intentions, but the city can't discriminate in enforcing the law. He said it was passed to ensure that public places are open to everyone. He also stressed that the city was working with local charities to help serve the homeless through indoor feedings and programs that get them medical care and long-term help.

"The parks have just been overrun and were inaccessible to locals and businesses," Seiler said.

Police said the men were not taken into custody and were given notices to appear in court, where the matter will be decided by a judge.

Abbott fought a similar ordinance in court 15 years ago and said he's prepared to mount another legal challenge.

Fort Lauderdale's ordinance took effect Friday, and the city passed a slew of laws addressing homelessness in recent months. They ban people from leaving their belongings unattended, outlaw panhandling at medians and strengthen defecation and urination laws, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Other cities are conducting routine homeless sweeps while some have launched anti-panhandling campaigns, according to the coalition. And many laws continue to target public feedings.


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