THE ASSOCIATED PRESS headline screamed out at me: “Feeding Homeless illegal in Florida City.”

Whaaaaaat?

Surely, I’m still sleeping, I thought. But it was no nightmare. It is true.

A new city ordinance in Fort Lauderdale effectively prohibits private groups from feeding homeless people in public places.

They can’t feed them out-of-doors within 500 feet of homes. If they do feed them outdoors, they must get permission from property owners and set up portable toilets. Indoor feeding sites may not be within 500 feet of each other, and only one feeding site is allowed per city block.

If you are caught violating these rules in Fort Lauderdale, you face a 60-day jail sentence and a $500 fine.

In fact, police recently charged two pastors and a 90-year-old man who has been feeding the homeless for more than 20 years with giving food to homeless people in a park in Fort Lauderdale.

While the city allows most churches to feed homeless people if the facilities are up to par, other city ordinances ban the homeless from begging for money at busy intersections and sleeping or leaving their possessions on public property.

I checked out the Fort Lauderdale city website and found a letter from the city’s mayor, John Seller.

It cites all kinds of reasonable sounding excuses for why his city is so strict when it comes to homeless people. For instance, it says regulating how homeless people are fed ensures the health, safety and welfare of the community.

“As a city, we have a responsibility to ensure that all of our public spaces are accessible and can be safely enjoyed by everyone — families, children, residents and visitors,” the letter said.

Furthermore, homeless people need more than just food. They need shelter, clothing and health care, and the city works with all sorts of agencies and organizations to address their needs in a comprehensive way, the letter says. The ordinances seek to reduce the public safety hazards and inappropriate nuisance activities negatively impacting the community, according to the letter.

God forbid children see homeless people sleeping on the streets or taking handouts from well-meaning church ministers. The youths may catch some horrible disease or worse yet, see how easy it is to live on the street and decide to follow suit.

And, gosh, if tourists see the homeless lying about, they’ll flee to other, more pristine places where they don’t have to suffer the indignity of witnessing such wretchedness and ruining their vacations.

Pardon me. If I sound sarcastic, it’s because I am.

You could not give me a million bucks to live in Fort Lauderdale, not because of the reported 10,000 homeless people there, but because I wouldn’t want to live in a place that discriminates against them.

Give me Waterville, Maine, any day of the week.

After reading that horrid Fort Lauderdale headline, I headed to my office, taking a detour to run an errand. I drove down Pleasant Street, passing patrons of the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen who had just had their daily meal, thanks to many kind people who donate and or volunteer at the kitchen, including children from Mount Merici Academy.

In this small city, we encourage helping those less fortunate. We see them on the streets, recognize them and talk to them in our cafes. They are part of our community — a community that cares about them, connects them with services, and helps them find jobs and places to live.

Fort Lauderdale and Waterville may be very different in size and circumstance, but I’m pretty sure Waterville officials won’t soon be developing an ordinance that prohibits feeding homeless people in public.

That Florida city may have plenty of reasons for telling people not to feed the homeless, including that it enables them to remain homeless — an argument I don’t buy. But then I don’t buy a lot of arguments.

Such as the one that tries to convince us we need to dump doughnuts in the woods to lure bears so we can shoot them. Otherwise, they’ll come out of the woodwork and eat us.

But that’s another story. I refer to it here only as a reminder that people can tell you all kinds of things to try to convince you their argument is the best one.

And all I’m saying is, if your gut tells you otherwise, there’s usually a good reason.

In this case, I believe it has something to do with humanity.

There’s no amount of talking that will ever convince me it’s OK to trick a hungry bear by dumping a load of junk food in his habitat — and then blowing him away.

Or that I’m doing the right thing by not giving a homeless person a handout.

I’m not dumb, and I ain’t buying it.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 26 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]


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