To Arnold Abbott, feeding the homeless in a public park in South Florida was an act of charity. To the city of Fort Lauderdale, the 90-year-old man in white chef's apron serving up gourmet-styled meals was committing a crime.
For more than two decades, the man many call "Chef Arnold" has proudly fired up his ovens to serve up four-course meals for the downtrodden who wander the palm tree-lined beaches and parks of this sunny tourist destination.
Now a face-off over a new ordinance restricting public feedings of the homeless has pitted Abbott and others with compassionate aims against some officials, residents and businesses who say the growing homeless population has overrun local parks and that public spaces merit greater oversight.
Abbott and two South Florida ministers were arrested last weekend as they served up food. They were charged with breaking an ordinance restricting public feeding of the homeless. Each faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
"One of the police officers said, 'Drop that plate right now,' as if I were carrying a weapon," Abbott recalled.
The arrests haven't deterred Abbott, and pastors Dwayne Black and Mark Sims.
In fact, on Wednesday evening, Abbott and Black went back out for a feeding along Fort Lauderdale beach as police videotaped them serving up fresh-cooked entrees: a chicken-and-vegetable dish with broccoli sauce and a cubed ham-and-pasta dish Abbott said he topped with a "beautiful white onion celery sauce."
Nearly 100 mostly homeless people and volunteers cheered his arrival in the park.
"God bless you, Arnold!" some in the crowd shouted.
"Thank God for Chef Arnold. I haven't eaten all day. He feeds a lot of people from the heart," said 56-year-old Eddie Hidalgo, who described himself as living on the streets since losing his job two years ago.
At one point, an Associated Press staffer said she watched as Abbott was called over beside a police car by officers where an officer wrote up something and handed Abbott a copy as he stood by.
Police spokeswoman DeAnna Greenlaw late told The Associated Press by email that Abbott was issued a citation on a charge of breaking the ordinance. She said no one else was cited and police had no further comment.
"I'm grateful that they allowed us to feed the people before they gave us the citation," Abbott said afterward. He has said feeding the homeless is his life's mission.
Fort Lauderdale is the latest U.S. city to pass restrictions on feeding homeless people in public places. Advocates for the homeless say that the cities are fighting to control increasing homeless populations but that simply passing ordinances doesn't work.
In the past two years, more than 30 cities have tried to introduce laws similar to Fort Lauderdale's, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. The efforts come as more veterans face homelessness and after two harsh winters drove homeless people southward, especially to Florida.
Mayor Jack Seiler said he thinks Abbott and the two pastors have good intentions, but that the city can't discriminate in enforcing the ordinance. He said it was passed recently to ensure that public places are open to everyone and stressed that the city was working with local charities to help with the root causes of homelessness."The parks have just been overrun and were inaccessible to locals and businesses," Seiler said.