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Fort Lauderdale is arresting people for the crime of giving food to the homeless

“One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon.” 

Last month, Fort Lauderdale, Florida passed a new local ordinance making it illegal to give food to the homeless in public. And now Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old advocate and soup kitchen volunteer, and two local pastors have been arrested under the law and are facing 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. 

The city has also recently made it crime for homeless people to sleep in public and to have possessions in public. If you figure these laws must represent extreme examples of how we’re criminalizing poverty in this country, that’s true–but they’re not really so rare. A couple dozen other cities have also cracked down on the scourge of people sharing food with other people, based on the absurdly backward myth that doing so “encourages” or “enables” homelessness.

It is no coincidence, of course, that the conservatives who have pushed to systematically decimate the social safety net have done so based on the same faulty logic that “government hand-outs” destroy people’s “incentive to work” and “breed dependence.” Often, though, such conservative anti-welfare rhetoric has been paired with the idea that whatever poverty they can’t wish away is best addressed by the voluntary charity of virtuous individuals, rather than taxpayer-funded governmental programs. How many times have we heard conversatives rail against the idea that government has an obligation to ensure its citizens basic needs are met, while waxing poetic about the generous American tradition of “giving help to the needy”?

And that’s essentially what we’ve done–government has outsourced the task of caring for our communities to a patchwork system of charities. So instead of just ending homelessness already by giving people housing subsidies, since it’s clear that “one thing that everyone who’s homeless needs is a home,” the 600,000 Americans who don’t have a place to sleep each night are left to find a shelter on their own. And instead of bolstering our wholy inadequate low-income food assistance program, we keep chipping away at it, relying on the decency of folks like Arnold Abbott to pick up the slack and help ensure that the 50 million Americans who don’t know where their next meal is coming from get enough to eat.

A system like this–that leaves the health and safety of our communities to the abstract violence of the free market, on the one hand, and the kindness of strangers, on the other–is a pretty shitty one. It creates gaps that too many people fall through, and it puts things that should be human rights–shelter, food, safe abortions–at the mercy of other people’s generosity and–oftentimes–politics and prejudices. And yet, it is inspiring to see how, time and time again, when communities have been abandoned by government, people step up to take care of each other.

And now, in some place, like Fort Lauderdale, the state hasn’t just abdicated its obligation to the people–it’s actually preventing us from fulfulling our obligations to each other. As Abbott says, “Any human has the right to help his fellow man.” The fact that we’re having to fight for that right these days is incredible.

Maya DusenberyMaya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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