The war on giving

Jessica Hansen-Weaver reports on how a "homeless hate law" led to a 90-year-old advocate for the homeless being arrested--for serving food to those in need.

Members of Love Thy Neighbor distribute food in Broward County, Florida (Love Thy Neighbor)Members of Love Thy Neighbor distribute food in Broward County, Florida (Love Thy Neighbor)

"DROP THAT plate right now!"

Those were the words of a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, police officer as he arrested 90-year-old Arnold Abbott, a homeless advocate who serves hot meals to homeless people twice a week through his Love Thy Neighbor organization.

This incident, which gained national media attention, has shed light on the growing number of laws criminalizing homelessness. An October report from the National Coalition for the Homeless titled Share No More: The Criminalization of Efforts to Feed People in Need has documented a dramatic increase in city ordinances aimed at restricting individuals and organizations from feeding people who are experiencing homelessness.

This is happening at a time when hunger in general is becoming a larger problem for millions of Americans as a result of the rising cost of food--and a "compromise" farm bill passed earlier this year with bipartisan support that cut $8.7 billion in food stamps.

The arrest of Arnold Abbott came two days after Fort Lauderdale commissioners passed a new ordinance restricting outdoor food sharing. This is one many restrictions in the South Florida area that homeless advocates are calling "homeless hate laws."

Such laws ban the homeless and others from soliciting at the city's busiest intersections, outlaw sleeping on public property, toughen laws against defecating in public, and make it illegal for people to store personal belongings on public property.

"Having done this work for three decades, I've never seen a city pass so many laws in such a short period of time attacking the homeless," said Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless to the Tampa Bay Times. "The food-sharing law Arnold got caught up in is just the most egregious.''

Arnold Abbottt has a history of challenging Fort Lauderdale policies that he considers to be unjust. In 2002, he successfully sued the city to block an earlier effort to shut down his nonprofit group's distribution of food at a beachfront city park.

"The city mayor and the commission are puppets of the mega-rich who live in Fort Lauderdale, and they want to get rid of the homeless," Arnold told the Sun Sentinel. "There are others out there who feed people on the street, but the city can scare them. I think this law is primarily aimed at us."

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SINCE THE beginning of 2013, 21 cities have restricted the practice of sharing food, according to the "Share No More" report. One common way is to restrict the use of public property by requiring individuals or organizations to obtain a permit, often for a fee, to share food with people who are experiencing hunger and homelessness. Another method, used in Fort Lauderdale, is requiring groups to comply with stringent food and safety regulations.

The "Share No More" report highlights three myths used to support these restrictions:

1) Feeding people in need enables them to be homeless.

2) There are plenty of government programs to feed people in need, and they're just not being used.

3) If you stop feeding people who find themselves homeless, the problem of homelessness will disappear.

These "enabling" myths completely ignore the systemic factors which create homelessness and food insecurity. In the most unequal society in the world, there are many ways to find yourself homeless, including lack of a living wage job, lack of affordable housing, mental and physical illnesses and disabilities, and the loss of essential social services due to budget cuts.

All of these factors have been exacerbated by the economic crisis along with the decades-long bosses' offensive against working-class living standards.

The idea that there are "plenty of government programs" flies in the face of the fact that the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP)--commonly known as food stamps--is being drastically cut.

Along with the $8.7 billion cut to SNAP signed by President Obama this year, states such as Indiana have established work requirements for food stamp recipients, a change that is expected to result in thousands of people being dropped from the program.

Even before the effects of these cuts has taken place, it is estimated that one in six Americans experience hunger on a daily basis.

According to a 2013 Hunger and Homelessness Survey, conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 21 of the 25 cities surveyed reported an increase in the number of emergency food requests from the previous year. Because of this growing increase in need, many cities have had to reduce the number of times a person could visit food pantries each month, often turning people away due to lack of resources. This need is expected to continue to increase as the Department of Agriculture predicts overall food prices will increase 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent this year.

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THE MYTH that homelessness will disappear if we just stop serving homeless populations is based on both delusion and cruelty. City governments have caved in to pressure from homeowners and small businesses using "Not In My Back Yard" arguments in order to police, relocate and restrict food sharing in specific residential and commercial neighborhoods.

In Ventura, California, a community of homeowners who live near Harbor Community Church--which has weekly food-sharing program--have proposed a law that would forcibly relocate the church if they did not stop food-sharing. Susanne Underwood told Fox LA that the program "brought vagrancy, and we were quite shocked how suddenly this was upon us."

The most insulting premise for restricting food-sharing is the supposed concern of authorities about health violations. In fact, inadequate nutrition is a leading cause of health problems for poor and homeless people.

Without proper nourishment, an individual may suffer severe medical problems, including anemia, dental problems, gastric ulcers, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and long-term effects on mental health. According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, those experiencing homelessness are three to four times more likely to die prematurely than their housed counterparts, and they have an average life expectancy as low as 41 years.

Government officials' claims around health and safety belie the fact that their central concern is managing and regulating people who experience poverty and homelessness under capitalism, rather than addressing the root cause of these social problems. In scholar Francis Fox Piven's contribution to Imagine Living in A Socialist U.S.A., she argues that the system of discipline and assistance usually called "poor relief" were shaped by their role in disciplining workers:

That harsh treatment and degradation [of the poor] have always constituted a dramatic warning to the mass of working people trying to survive on their earnings. The practices of relief or the workhouse or welfare sent the message that there was a worse fate than low-wage work: to fall into abject poverty and become a pauper.

The arrest of Abbott Arnold is a reminder that those in charge of this society can find even the most basic acts of kindness and charity to be a threatening display of solidarity--even though these charitable acts actually do government a favor by relieving it of its rightful responsibility to provide food and homes for all.

This is another sign of the backwards priorities of a system where people who show solidarity towards the poor and homeless are arrested, while the policy makers who allow them to starve get off scot-free.