FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - When the homeless feeding ban controversy in Fort Lauderdale began making headlines around the world, Mayor Jack Seiler embarked on a media push to assure the public that the city wasn't a villain but had actually added feeding locations to take care of the homeless.
"We have set up alternative locations for feeding," he told Local 10 News.
Seiler has also defended the city in interviews with CNN and the SunSentinel.
"We actually expanded the number of feeding locations in the city of Fort Lauderdale," the mayor told CNN.
"The media's ignoring the fact that there are daily feedings taking place in the city of Fort Lauderdale in full compliance with the law," he told the Sun-Sentinel.
He reiterated it Sunday on "This Week in South Florida."
"We're working with some 70 churches (and) some 20-plus organizations," Seiler said. "They're all feeding on a daily basis."
The problem? There are only church feedings available four days out of the week, according to local clergy. That's the same number of feedings that were available prior to the ban. They said there are no feedings available in the city for three days of the week, days that previously were handled by outside groups that the city has now outlawed feeding in public.
Pastor Frank Pontillo, who provides one of the weekly feedings at a Fort Lauderdale church, said the mayor is simply not telling the truth about services being provided to the homeless.
"That's only four," Pontillo said. "There's not hundreds. There's not dozens and dozens. This is just not a true story."
Seiler has claimed that non-profit Hope South Florida has organized the additional feedings, but the group's volunteer director of food sharing, Rev. Perry Cannon, also said they don't exist. Cannon said that because of the feeding-ban ordinance, more people are now hungry.
"I think (the city) put the cart before the horse," Cannon said. "It would have been nice to have all this network of churches set up (before the ordinance was passed)."
Cannon said he "strongly supports" the idea of suspending the ordinance until churches can fill the void left behind by volunteer groups that fed at places like Stranahan Park until being outlawed from doing so by the city.
"I don't keep a list in my pocket of feedings," Seiler said when questioned about where the daily feedings take place.
The mayor said he would send a list. However, when asked for the list, he didn't provide one and wrote that he does not maintain such a list.
Seiler did eventually concede that there are only four organized feedings, but said the city has now "sanctioned" every church in the city to conduct the feedings whether they choose to do so or not.
Pontillo said the mayor is again being untruthful, as there were no prior restrictions on churches conducting feedings within their doors prior to the ordinance being passed.
"It has never been illegal in any church in Fort Lauderdale to feed people, or in any church in the United States," he said. "It makes your head spin the way (Mayor Seiler) describes this."
Seiler said there were zoning issues that may have kept certain churches in residential neighborhoods from being allowed to feed people within their doors prior to the ordinance being passed, citing part of the land-use code applying to social-service organizations.
Pontillo said the mayor has been "underhanded" during the entire process, including when the city passed the law about 3:30 a.m. He said he and other homeless advocates were never consulted. He also mentioned other so-called "homeless hate laws," making it illegal for homeless to store goods in public and go to the bathroom, despite the fact that Fort Lauderdale does not provide public facilities.
Cannon said he supports the ordinance in theory but has seen the hunger problem in the city rise after numerous well-meaning groups were outlawed from supplying food.
"They're hungry. They want to be fed," Cannon said. "So I'm hoping we can step it up and get these additional locations."
Pontillo said he wants the mayor to stop misleading the public and sit down and really try to solve the problem.
"Bring these people in and have a conversation," Pontillo said. "That's all I'm asking."
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