Arnold Abbott, the soft-spoken lifelong activist, has died — five years after he drew international attention for feeding the homeless despite threats he’d be jailed.
Abbott, of Fort Lauderdale, died Friday at age 94, according to his caretaker and his attorney.
Abbott began feeding the homeless on Fort Lauderdale’s beach in 1991, although it was illegal to provide such a social service on the beach. Years later, the city demanded he stop, but he refused, saying he and his corps of volunteers had a right to feed the homeless so they could eat on the beach like anyone else.
“I’ve been fighting injustice all my life,” Abbott told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1999 after a showdown with police. ”I was always taught I am my brother’s keeper. I’m a fighter.”
His defiance put the city in a pickle because it wouldn’t look good to actually follow through on its threats. “I don’t want to prosecute him,” the city’s prosecutor said in 1999. “He wanted to be carted off and be a martyr. We’re not going to do it.”
‘Love and respect’
Abbott’s crusade to help others again drew attention in 2014, when Fort Lauderdale passed another ordinance putting new restrictions on feeding the homeless in public. Those distributing food were required to provide portable toilets if restrooms aren’t available, and Abbott was ticketed while dishing out food at a park.
He faced up to 60 days in jail or up to a $500 fine, and the news media coverage went viral, attracting French and Russian news crews, among others, recalls his lawyer, John David. “Treat everybody with love and respect. That’s what he really believed,” David said.
Laura Hansen, the CEO of the Coalition To End Homelessness, said Abbott’s standing up to the government was “something few people have the strength to do.”
“You have to be a certain kind of person willing to go up against the city and the county all the time,” she said. “Arnold was ‘OK, take me to jail.’ He was willing to, if he was going to go out there and break the law. Every time they passed a law prohibiting him from feeding he’d feed anyway,”
He fought hard for the rights of the homeless and the rights of the disenfranchised “and with him gone I don’t know who is left that could stand up to the city,” Hansen said.
Born in Beverly, Mass., Abbott was attending the University of Pennsylvania in 1941 when the U.S. entered World War II. He dropped his pre-med studies to enlist and ended up in the infantry, seeing action in North Africa and Italy. He was awarded two Purple Hearts.
‘Not afraid of the police’
Returning to Pennsylvania after the war, Abbott was a political activist for 18 years in suburban Philadelphia, fighting for civil rights, fair housing and other causes.
In the 1960s, he headed to Mississippi to register blacks to vote, driving them to the courthouse.
“That’s why I’m not afraid of the police,” he told the Sun Sentinel in 1999. “We were forced off the road a couple of times. I had the KKK on my back.”
He was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1964 and 1968. In the 1960s, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported how Abbott was the first Democrat to be elected a township commissioner in one region.
He moved to Broward County in 1970, opened a jewelry store, and continued his push to change the world.
Abbott formed the Love Thy Neighbor feeding program in memory of his fifth wife, Maureen, who died in 1991 from a fall at the couple’s home when she was 40. He said she had pointed out the desperate faces of Fort Lauderdale’s homeless and encouraged him to spend money on food for those on the streets.
In 2000 he successfully sued the city, saying feeding was his religious right. He had a religion professor from Palm Beach Atlantic College testify that the world’s three major religions all require charity to the poor. Abbott, who is Jewish, said he followed the teachings of Jesus.
“I told you God is on our side, but he’s not subpoena-able,” Abbott gleefully told the Sun Sentinel.
In 2014, attorneys for Abbott challenged new city ordinances on constitutional grounds, and the city stopped enforcing them, in part because of the negative publicity.
In December 2014, Abbott was named “Advocate of the Year” by the Congressional Hunger Center and the National Coalition for the Homeless.
While his supporters had likened him to a rebel and do-gooder, other homeless advocates had said he who could have still cared for the homeless with a less in-your-face approach.
Former Mayor Jack Seiler defended the city’s laws to the Sun Sentinel in 2014.
“I’m not satisfied with having a cycle of homeless in the city of Fort Lauderdale,” he said at the time. “Providing them with a meal and keeping them in that cycle on the street is not productive.”
On Friday, Seiler said he knew that Abbott “meant well” and “had very good intentions.”
“I never questioned his desire to help those less fortunate. My issue is I just wanted him to do it in compliance with the laws. Listen, he wanted to help people, and he did help people and it was very admirable. My issue was if he’s going to feed, let’s feed in a sanitary, safe location and preferably, let’s do it indoors at a church or a kitchen.”
Abbott never cared one way or the other.
“If you stand for anything, half are going to hate you and half are going to love you,” Abbott told the newspaper at the height of the controversy. “Everybody loves you, you accomplish nothing.”
He is survived by four children, Pam Trimble, of Barto, Pa.; Robert Abbott, of Barto, Pa.; Tara Abbott, of Fort Lauderdale; Andrew Abbott, of Austin, Texas; two grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Trimble confirmed there would not be a funeral or service since her father did not want either. “He felt that would be too self-important,” explained David, his attorney.