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Fort Lauderdale joins urban movement to restrict feeding the homeless

Thirty-one US cities have restricted – or are moving to restrict – feeding the homeless outside, says a new report. Why Fort Lauderdale, Fla, just passed a new ordinance this week. 

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    Ken McEwan is a homeless veteran, seen here at The Soup Kitchen, sponsored by Community Cooperative Ministries in Fort Myers, Fla.
    Joanne Ciccarello / The Christian Science Monitor
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Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is the latest city to place restrictions on feeding the homeless.

The new regulations prohibit organizations from feeding the homeless outside within 500 feet of each other, allowing for only one such station per city block, and stipulate that any feeding operations must be 500 feet away from residential properties, the Sun Sentinel reported.

Though churches may host indoor feeding programs, all organizations serving food outside need property owners’ permission, the Sun Sentinel reported. Regulations were passed at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday.

These stipulations will limit options for the homeless, says Ray Sternberg, who works with homeless people at Fort Lauderdale’s First Baptist Church. But he noted that churches can and will pick up the slack.

“It’s going to cause confusion and hardship on the homeless,” he says. “I think, though, that the ministries that are doing that [feeding the homeless], on a consistent basis, will find a way to help.”

Mr. Sternberg joined the congregation in 1994 and recalls a Thanksgiving dinner held annually on a blocked off boulevard where the church is located. Carloads of volunteers would serve hundreds of homeless people each year, he says. “You have so many homeless here in Fort Lauderdale, and the need is great,” he says.

More than 30 US cities have restricted or are in the process of restricting the sharing of food with the homeless, according to a report from the National Coalition for the Homeless released this week

The report, called “Share No More: The Criminalization of Efforts to Feed People In Need,” aims to dispel what authors call a widespread myth – that food-sharing perpetuates homelessness.

“In many cases food-sharing programs might be the only occasion in which some homeless individuals have access to healthy, safe food,” the report reads.

Denver, Nashville, Philadelphia and Phoenix are among the U.S. cities that have attempted to restrict, ban or relocate food-sharing, according to the report.

Houston, the report says, is among 12 cities that has passed a law restricting property usage. The legislation says that written consent is required to feed the homeless, and writers worry that “the strenuous process to obtain permission will leave the homeless population without food.”

These restrictions, which the report says accompany greater hunger in cities, can come through three channels.

Cities restrict the use of public property for food-sharing, require groups to follow rigorous food-safety regulations and pressure organizations to relocate their programs, according to the report. Thirty-one cities have pushed for new legislation that would effectively limit giving food to the needy, the report shows.

In Fort Lauderdale, David Raymond, who has more then two decades of experience in social service work, including nine years as executive director of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, says he in part understands the decision to limit outdoor service. Feeding the homeless outside may not be the most effective solution, he says, because food should be a means to engage homeless people with other community services.

He says he believes people are better served eating in indoor areas, where they can sit down, shower and use the bathroom. But, he notes, “some people on the street are resistant to services.”

Another tension that can arise when organizations feed the homeless outside is between those providing services and area businesses.

If homeless people frequent the same public area, Mr. Raymond says it can “create some hostility” between area businesses and people who are trying to do good. 

A representative from Fort Lauderdale mayor John Seiler’s office could not be reached for comment by press time.

After the Fort Lauderdale ruling, demonstrators chanted “blood, blood, blood on your hands,” according to the Sun Sentinel.

Anne Leomporra, who helped to research National Coalition for the Homeless report, says that the coalition’s nationwide offices have been keeping tabs on changed regulations for the past year.

While poverty continues to for many U.S. citizens, Ms. Leomporra says that many residents of cities with tightening regulations are not aware of what’s at stake. Education, then, is so important to changing the conversation.

If anything, she says, these restrictions will make homelessness a more pressing issue for these cities.

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