US activist, 90, arrested for feeding homeless vows to continue, even if it means going to jail

MIAMI (AFP) - A 90-year-old activist arrested for serving meals to the homeless in Florida vowed on Thursday to continue his charitable work, even if it means going to jail.

Mr Arnold Abbott was detained on two separate occasions this week along with two pastors from local churches in Fort Lauderdale for handing out food to the city's homeless. The activists were arrested after violating a city ordinance passed last month that places new restrictions on distribution of food to the homeless in public places.

Mr Abbott could be jailed for up to two months and fined US$500 (S$647) if he is found in breach of the law. However, Mr Abbott said on Thursday he would continue his practice, telling NBC in an interview: "I'm awfully hard to intimidate.

"I certainly will follow this through until we beat them," he said. "You can't sweep the homeless under the rug.

The ordinance requires feeding sites to be more than 152m away from each other and 152m from residential properties.

Only one group distributing food to the homeless is allowed to operate on an individual city block at any one time.

Fort Lauderdale police have defended the arrests of Mr Abbott and the two pastors, saying they are only enforcing the law.

"We would like to emphasise that the purpose of the ordinance is not to prevent the feeding of the homeless, but to balance the needs of the entire population of the city," the police said in a statement.

City officials meanwhile have scrambled to manage the public relations fallout from the arrests.

"We're not a city that lacks compassion or lack kindness," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said.

"We just feel that if someone is homeless on the streets of Fort Lauderdale, we need to get them off the street and in the right places where they can improve their position, their situation."

Homeless rights activists say the case highlights an increasing trend by local governments across the United States to crack down on food distribution networks for the needy.

"Since January 2013, 21 cities have successfully restricted the practice of sharing food with people who are experiencing homelessness while at least 10 others have introduced ordinances that are pending approval," the National Coalition for the Homeless revealed in a report.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.