Fort Lauderdale lost a homeless feeding ban case. Now the city owes $640,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Fort Lauderdale now owes $640,000 in attorneys’ fees nearly a decade after the city approved a ban on public feeding that was later ruled unconstitutional.

The money will go to the five attorneys who represented Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs in the nonprofit group’s federal lawsuit against Fort Lauderdale — a case the city lost.

The case, which centered on a city law that regulated when and where public feedings could be held, was among a series of legal fumbles that drew scathing headlines and had critics accusing Fort Lauderdale of trying to criminalize homelessness.

This latest bill could have been even higher, city officials acknowledge.

After winning the case last year, the Food Not Bombs attorneys said they racked up more than $1.5 million in legal fees. The attorneys say they spent 2,505 hours on the case, billing at hourly rates ranging from $565 to $787.

Fort Lauderdale balked at paying $1.5 million, instead offering $334,000.

A federal judge ruled Fort Lauderdale owed $603,039 in attorneys fees.

Food Not Bombs, which shares food with the hungry as part of its political message against war and poverty, filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

In October, the appellate court issued a mandate confirming the award of attorneys’ fees in the amount of $603,039 plus interest for a total of $638,196.

Bob Jarvis, a constitutional law professor at Nova Southeastern University, argues both sides can declare a win.

“First of all, $600,000 is a lot of money,” Jarvis said. “The attorneys got twice as much as the city offered. On that side of the ledger, it’s a win for the attorneys. But they got half of what they were asking for, so the city had a win, too. The judges typically split the baby. That’s ultimately where most judges end up.”

Commissioner John Herbst says the city could have saved thousands of taxpayer dollars if only it had settled the case sooner.

“It could have been worse,” Herbst said. “This just shows that we need to be very cautious when we start infringing on people’s constitutional rights. And secondly, we have to make sure that we don’t continually litigate issues when it’s clear we’re going to lose. We should have settled a lot sooner. It went on far too long.”

Homeless people camp out in 2018 at Fort Lauderdale's Stranahan Park, where the nonprofit group Food Not Bombs still holds public feedings. (South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Sun Sentinel

Homeless people camp out in 2018 at Fort Lauderdale’s Stranahan Park, where the nonprofit group Food Not Bombs still holds public feedings. (South Florida Sun Sentinel)

The Food Not Bombs case dragged on for seven years, only adding to the mounting legal fees.

The case centered on an ordinance that strictly regulated when “social service” events could be held in parks, including public feedings of the homeless. Organizers who wanted to feed the homeless in downtown’s Stranahan Park were required to apply for a zoning permit with fees as high as $6,000.

The ordinance, approved in 2014, has since been repealed.

More than 2,000 homeless people live in Broward County, with most calling Fort Lauderdale home.

Over the years, city officials have tried to tackle the problem by staging a series of crackdowns that have made news across the globe.

In 2014, a former City Commission banned the feeding of homeless people in public parks. Soon after, police cited the late Arnold Abbott, an elderly preacher who’d been feeding hungry people at the beach for years. The story made international news.

Abbott’s attorney challenged the city ordinances on constitutional grounds. Fort Lauderdale stopped enforcing them, in part due to the bad press.

In 2017, Fort Lauderdale filed a complaint with the health department after a rat was spotted running through a homeless encampment at the city-owned Stranahan Park.

When the health department declared the park unsanitary, city officials insisted on closing it without warning. Front-end loaders rolled in, hauling away belongings before the homeless people who camped out there could collect them.

They eventually returned, setting up another makeshift tent city in front of the Broward Main Library near Broward Boulevard, a key gateway to downtown.

That encampment was dismantled in 2018 and people were relocated to hotel rooms and apartments in a joint partnership between the county, Fort Lauderdale, the business community and nonprofit agencies.

Not long after, the encampments reappeared.

All the crackdowns took place before Commissioner Steve Glassman, who was elected in 2018, took office.

But Glassman will be one of the five elected leaders who approves the payment of the legal fees at the next commission meeting on Dec. 19.

“These dollars would have gone a long way in assisting the homeless,” Glassman said of the legal fees. “I find it hard to see anybody as a winner in this. I don’t see any wins here for anybody. To me, our resources need to be spent on services that address the (homeless) issue. When they’re not, it’s just not a win.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at Follow me on X @Susannah_Bryan