A Florida couple vowed this week to fight back after they were fined and threatened with jail time for feeding the homeless.
Debbie and Chico Jimenez have used a city park in Daytona Beach, Florida, to hand out home-cooked meals to the homeless every Wednesday for the past year, earning them at least four citations from a local government eager to see its homeless services centralized.
But despite the citations, the fines and the threat of incarceration, the retired couple is determined to continue doing what they love.
“The worst thing is, these are people we have grown to love, they've become like family to us, and now we’re not allowed to go down and do that anymore. It's just heartbreaking. I have cried and cried and cried,” Debbie Jimenez, 52, told NBC News.
Along with Chico, her 60-year-old husband, Debbie runs a ministry called “Spreading the Word Without Saying a Word," which is based in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
“One of our (homeless) friends said that Wednesday is just not going to be Wednesday anymore,” she added. “We were given 10 days to either pay the fine or tell them we're going to court. We’re going to court. The police don’t like it. But how can we turn our backs on the hungry? We can’t.”
Daytona Beach police last week ticketed the couple and four volunteers with fines totaling $2,238.
Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood said that the couple was warned a week earlier to cease all operations. He added that local residents complained that the weekly gathering had attracted homeless people who urinated and defecated on the grounds. Some even showed up drunk, he added.
"We as a city have spent millions of dollars to turn that park into a place for families, kids and dog lovers," Chitwood said. "We have an ordinance that says when people want to perform acts of kindness or charity that they must coordinate with our local social service agencies.
"They were told (the previous Wednesday) that if they come back there, they would be cited and they could risk going to jail," he added. "There is a segment of the homeless population that is homeless by choice. I don't want to impugn them all. But some are homeless because they are sex offenders, substance abusers and bank robbers. That's why we ask (Good Samaritans) to coordinate with our social service agencies, because they know who needs to be served."
The couple said they were never given a warning by law enforcement officials.
“We've been down there a year, and the police have been around and not one of them has ever said one word,” Chico Jimenez said. “This time, the police said we are creating more homeless people by feeding them in the park, that we are enabling them by giving them one meal in a week. Does that make sense to you? It’s so crazy.”
Here’s footage of the couple’s final gathering for the needy:
“Each week, we celebrate somebody’s birthday. We have over 100 people every week - it’s always somebody’s birthday,” Chico Jimenez said. “On the tape, you can hear us singing ‘Happy Birthday’ as a group.”
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