Governing public space often boils down to basic social discipline. Some cities try to reduce littering by removing trash cans—thus limiting people’s options for tossing garbage in public. And some cities now apply this rationale to homelessness: by passing laws that bar homeless people from public places. Fort Lauderdale has taken this social engineering to its logical extreme by restricting “food distribution,” effectively giving those who help the homeless no place to feed them—because all that free food only encourages public displays of hunger.
But Fort Lauderdale’s Food Not Bombs activists say the real crime is a ban on acts of public generosity. The punk-inspired grassroots group just bit back with a lawsuit fighting for their right to engage in weekly demonstrations to promote peace and social welfare, and to illustrate this communal ethos by distributing morsels to bystanders in need. They assert that their modest gesture in Stranahan Park is an exercise in free expression.
Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance restricting food distribution in public was passed last October in an effort to, according to city officials, manage use of the park, deter behavior that “enables” homelessness and to “ensure food safety and health”—evidently by keeping free food safely out of the hands of the hungry.
But the city made international headlines by nabbing an activist with a local organization, fittingly called Love thy Neighbor, as they distributed meals. The 90-year-old humanitarian Arnold Abbott proclaimed at the time, “you cannot sweep the homeless under a rug…. There is no rug large enough for that.”
According to a survey of more than 180 cities by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, anti-homeless laws pervade urban spaces nationwide. Roughly a third of cities barred public “camping,” for example, up 60 percent since 2011. Restrictions range from prohibiting sitting on sidewalks to imposing steep fees or regulations that effectively criminalize actions of charity groups, often using antiseptic “quality of life” terms (a tent pitched under a bridge becomes an unauthorized “camp”). Palo Alto has banned sleeping in parked cars. Mobile has imposed zero-tolerance on “aggressive panhandling,” which could involve just “request[ing] a donation from a person standing in line…no matter how mildly the request was made.” Last year, ThinkProgress reported, Fort Lauderdale authorized police to bust people who “store possessions” on public property—suggesting that homeless people don’t deserve to have what little they carry with them, let alone “quality of life.”