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Fort Lauderdale Woman's Club shuts down holiday dinner for homeless, couple says

Club president says homeless people aren't allowed in club

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Pastor Yoner Valmyr said that when God spoke to him, he was very specific.

"He said, 'What about the homeless?' So I said, 'What?' He said, 'Yeah, at least bring them 10 plates of hot food every time you get a chance,'" Valmyr said. "I'm disputing. I said, 'Well I don't have the means and the help to do it.' And God said, 'Just do it.'"

His wife, Christine, was praying next to him at the time and said he started to cry and told her what he'd just heard. She told him if that's what God wants, that's what God gets, and she started cooking those meals.

At first, they would simply drive around Fort Lauderdale trying to find homeless people to give their hot meals. Then they learned that Stranahan Park in downtown was the main hub for the homeless and would simply pass their meals out there.

Then at Thanksgiving time last year, they decided they wanted to do something really special for the homeless: rent the Fort Lauderdale Woman's Club in Stranahan Park and throw a banquet for them indoors, complete with a traditional turkey dinner, real plates, silverware, running water to wash themselves before the meal and even a karaoke machine.

"We treated them like people, like Jesus would want us to treat them," Yoner Valmyr said.

It was a big such a success they decided to do it again this year, renting the Woman's Club for $620.

"No plastic," Christine Valmyr said. "We went all out."

They booked the venue for Nov.19 and on that day set the tables and laid out turkeys, two platters of lasagna, corn bread, rice, chicken, vegetables and cakes. But after laying it all out, they were given an order that wrecked their day. The president of the Woman's Club, Jo Ann Smith, said: "No homeless."

Smith told the couple that she would refund their money but that they had to get out of the building if they planned to allow homeless people inside. The couple balked and Smith called police, who said they had to pack up the uneaten food and and leave.

"'Don't feed the homeless in our house,' is what I said," Smith said.

The Woman's Club has been complaining to the city for years about the homeless at Stranahan Park, saying they threaten club members and make it difficult to rent the facility.

She said last year's dinner led to more problems.

"The last time (they) brought them in, we had a serious problem afterward because they came into the building thinking they could come and go as they please," Smith said. "They pushed one lady down in here. ... They were all in here, so now they all think it's where they can come get services."

Smith said that before he signed the contract to lease the building, Valmyr promised he wouldn't bring any homeless people inside, which Valmyr denies. She also said they didn’t have a police detail, which was also required by the contract.

"They treat them worse than dogs," Christine Valmyr said. "Dogs have more value than them and they are human beings. That's not fair. That's not nice. That's not right. I was hurt it could have been me and someone would say you cannot come in."

"To me, it's blatant discrimination against a certain class of people," Pastor Frank Pontillo, a homeless advocate and member of Broward County Continuum of Care Board, told Local 10 News.

At the same time, Pontillo acknowledges that the large congregation of homeless people at Stranahan Park presents a problem for the Woman's Club and nearby businesses.

But the city, he said, doesn't provide them services, even refusing to give them bathrooms.

He said the city's strategy to run the homeless out of town by criminalizing them -- including outlawing them from storing their possessions on the street and passing a legally challenged ordinance to make feeding homeless people outdoors illegal -- is not only morally wrong, but also hasn't helped solve the problem in the least.

"Why doesn't the Woman's Club, and the business community and the city come together to help the homeless?" he said. "There should be services for them. Fort Lauderdale takes an adversarial approach. They criminalize it. We are looking at a failure of city and county officials to deal with the problem. Do we have a heart? Do we want to help people? Provide a building where they can go."

The couple said they're considering legal action and hoping to find a hospitable location for their homeless dinner next year.

"They need a chance to sit down, just like me and you on the table with real spoons and real plates and real glass to drink and eat, just like everybody else," Christine Valmyr said.