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Feeding The Homeless

Arnold Abbott, left, prepared plates of food for the homeless on Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Mr. Abbott, 90, was defying the city's new restrictions on feeding homeless people in public places. Credit Ryan Stone for The New York Times

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — As dusk settled over the city's main beach, Arnold Abbott, frail but determined, broke the law late Wednesday afternoon. Mr. Abbott, a 90-year-old World War II veteran, stood on the pavement and piled tilapia and rice and beans on plates for dozens of homeless people. A crowd stood and watched, waiting to see what the police would do.

"I am trying to allow homeless people to have the same rights as everyone else," said Mr. Abbott, who has ignited a skirmish with the city over new restrictions on feeding the homeless in public places. "There is no rug big enough to sweep them under."

Once again the police issued him a notice to appear in court for the criminal violation of an ordinance — the third one in nearly two weeks — and then allowed Mr. Abbott, who has worked to help the homeless for decades, to resume serving food to those waiting in line. And once again Mr. Abbott, who has become a cause celebre, vowed to continue to feed the homeless "as long as there is breath in my body" — be it at the beach or in a park. To press his case, Mr. Abbott also said he took the city to court on Wednesday, a tactic he used successfully nearly 15 years ago to beat back a similar local ordinance.

Mr. Abbott's stance against the city's newest restriction on the homeless has put him at the center of an escalating debate in cities across Florida: How to feed, help and handle the ever-present homeless population in a state that, with its balmy winter climate, draws an outsize share of the dispossessed. In 2012, the state had nearly 55,000 homeless people, ranking third behind California and New York.

"We have no desire to fight with Mr. Abbott," said Jack Seiler, Fort Lauderdale's mayor, who has spent days trying to counter reports that Mr. Arnold had been arrested (he was not) and that his city is harsh on homeless people.

On one side of the debate are local businesses and the chambers of commerce, which would like the homeless population to be less visible. On the other side are increasingly vocal homeless activists who want to ensure that homeless people are dealt with humanely. The balancing act is particularly tricky in Florida, where tourists blanket the state and tourism officials cringe at the thought of scared tourists.

"Florida has had a sorry history of criminalizing the homeless," said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "That war is being played out all around the country. Florida leads the pack."

This year, Fort Lauderdale, despite a reputation for being more progressive than most Florida cities on homelessness, passed a series of measures that surprised and drew the ire of homeless activists. The latest one, passed last month, made food distribution in public places difficult by requiring toilets, written consent from property owners and feeding sites located 500 feet away from each other.

But the law also relaxed the rules on feeding the homeless in houses of worship and on private property, an attempt to steer food distribution away from parks. On Wednesday, a police officer recommended two nearby sites to Mr. Abbott, an offer the mayor said Mr. Abbott had refused earlier in the day.

The new ordinance stemmed from long-running complaints about crowds of homeless people who congregated daily to wait for food at Stranahan Park, a small park in front of a library and the Fort Lauderdale Woman's Club.

"The Woman's Club said it couldn't hold any more weddings, events with children, yoga classes," said Mr. Seiler, who underscored that most experts agree that handing out food in public spaces is a bad idea "They said: 'Mayor, we have people urinating all over our property and porch, defecating on our property and our porch. There is garbage and litter. There is no respect for our property.' "

Ronald L. Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, said public feedings were typically counterproductive.

"There are ways to help within the boundaries of the rules: feeding indoors," he said. If not, he added, "You sustain them on the street, and that's not a good thing."

The city's other new ordinances include restricting panhandling at intersections and allowing the police to confiscate and store property left in public spaces.

Similar laws — and opposition to them — have cropped up across Florida. Pensacola was forced to repeal a law that made it a crime for the homeless to sleep on public property with a blanket. A month later, in nearby Fort Walton Beach, a homeless man, apparently rankled by laws that made it illegal to lie down at the park, called the police on a picnicking family. In May, the police in Daytona Beach dismissed more than $2,000 in fines against a couple ticketed for feeding the homeless after the case drew national attention.

"New downtown merchants are like, 'Chief, I can't have customers outside,' " said the Daytona Beach police chief, Mike Chitwood. "They are panhandling, urinating and sleeping in my doorway because they know someone is coming to feed them."

But Fort Lauderdale and a few other cities in Florida, including Orlando, are moving beyond a mostly punitive approach. Recognizing that the homeless cannot simply be pushed out of sight, they are increasing funding for low-cost housing and providing more services.

Among other things, Fort Lauderdale has a large homeless assistance center offering 230 beds for short-term stays and a variety of services. It is part of a national network participating in Housing First, a program that seeks to find homeless people permanent housing as soon as possible. "We have one of the most comprehensive policies of any city," Mr. Seiler said.

But Nathan Pim, a volunteer for Food Not Bombs whose wife, Jillian, is on a hunger strike to protest the new law, disagreed. He said the city was unnecessarily criminalizing the homeless and people who simply want to help the homeless by "food sharing."

"Food is a right and not a privilege, and we believe in the importance of public spaces for public use," Mr. Pim said. The law, he added, "is now encouraging starvation."