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Homeless hunger games: Priests become criminals for feeding the needy

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Arresting priests for feeding the hungry is guaranteed to bring bad press, but letting your parks get overrun by panhandlers doesn’t look so hot either.

That’s what Fort Lauderdale, Fla., officials are dealing with as police officers enforce a city ordinance aimed at cracking down on a growing homeless population, according to the Sun Sentinel.

In a classic case of a city government’s civil duty to maintain order versus a religious call to help the poor, city police on Sunday issued citations to an Episcopal priest, a Presbyterian minister and a 90-year-old volunteer who set up a feeding station for the homeless in a city park.

The South Florida city’s battles with homelessness have been going on for years — wealthy retirees aren’t the only people who are drawn south by warm winters. Homeless advocate Arnold Abbot, a 90-year-old, who was ticketed Sunday when police closed the food station he’d set up in Fort Lauderdale’s Strahan Park, won a lawsuit against the city stemming from a 1999 ordinance that banned food stations for the homeless at the beach.

Among the items in the ordinance that passed Friday are requirements that anyone setting up a food station on private property have the owner’s permission first and that the food provider also provide portable toilets.

The two clergymen ticketed for violating the ordinance were the Revs. Mark Sims of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, and Dwayne Black of The Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, according to the Sun Sentinel.

“We are simply trying to feed people who are hungry,” Sims told the newspaper. “To criminalize that is contrary to everything that I stand for as a priest and as a person of faith.”

Fair enough, and that is what clergymen are supposed to do. But running a city where people feel safe enough to bring their kids to the park is what mayors are supposed to do. And let’s face it, public parks filled with homeless people waiting for their next free meal aren’t the most inviting places to bring the family – Christian charity or no Christian charity.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said the city is serious about enforcing the ordinance – with arrests if necessary.

In the long run, he said, feeding the homeless on the street doesn’t actually help them,

“I’m not satisfied with having a cycle of homeless in city of Fort Lauderdale,” Seiler told the Sun Sentinel. “Providing them with a meal and keeping them in that cycle on the street is not productive.”

Check out WPLG’s coverage of the controversy here.

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