“Our mission here is to feed people who come here because they want to have a meal in the cool breeze and the shade and not worry about getting burned up (in the sun) or having to dig through trash cans."

FORT WALTON BEACH – Three local women committed an act of civil disobedience on Wednesday afternoon under the Brooks Bridge.

Their alleged crimes focused squarely on the distribution of a free meal of chicken fried steak, roasted potatoes, salad, cookies, fruit and iced tea to about a dozen homeless, hungry and elderly people — in direct defiance of a warning they were given last Wednesday by the Fort Walton Beach Police Department.

The catered meal was paid for and prepared by Gloria Donaldson, a retired postal worker who also provided sanitary plastic gloves to serve the food with, folding tables to serve the food on and chairs to sit in.

For four years, Donaldson and other volunteers have been serving meals on Wednesday afternoons at various locations around Fort Walton Beach with varying degrees of drama.

Donaldson’s group was asked to leave the Fort Walton Landing in 2017 over lack of a permit. The permits would cost $100 per week — around the total cost of the food each week.

“We started off at The Landing, but we got in trouble over a permit,” Donaldson said. “The policeman that came over here last week told me I needed to go to parks and rec to get a permit, but (parks and rec) told me they only issued permits for parks and not for under the bridge, so what am I supposed to do?

“I also told the police and the mayor what was going on but no one ever got back to me. I told them I was planning on coming back this week, so they at least know I’m here.”

Fort Walton Beach police responded to a call last Wednesday about Donaldson’s group, which sets up across several empty parking spaces and on a grassy divide in the shade of the bridge and overlooking Santa Rosa Sound.

“When we were at The Landing I didn’t realize until later the police had told us to stop serving or they would arrest us because I’m severely hard of hearing and have to wear these (hearing aids),” Donaldson said. “So I kept serving until my friend told me what they said … I’m not much of a troublemaker. I’ve never been arrested and I’ve only had one speeding ticket.”

Donaldson and Booth Iburg, the lead pastor at Eternal Hope United Church of Christ, said the responding officer last Wednesday told them the free meal presented two dangers. First, that someone could be hit by a car because it’s a public parking lot. Second, that people eating the food could be poisoned.

Iburg said the officer told the women that they “would hate to have to arrest them” if they served food in the same spot this week.

The group was forced to move its meals to below the bridge after using the parking lot at Pat’s Bait and Tackle for an extended period of time, but after that business closed the owners of the land would not allow the meals to be served there.

The spot under the bridge was doubly useful for Donaldson’s group — it was public land and it was close enough for those in need of a meal to see where the new location was when they showed up to the old spot.

“Our mission here is to feed people who come here because they want to have a meal in the cool breeze and the shade and not worry about getting burned up (in the sun) or having to dig through trash cans," Iburg said. “As far as (the police) saying they might arrest us … I really don’t care one way or another. I’m over 65 years old and I have a job that’s not going to check my arrest record and I’m not sure who’s going to check (Donaldson). And she’s older than I am.”

When contacted by the Daily News, Fort Walton Beach Police Chief Robert Bage expressed a desire to work in tandem with Donaldson’s group moving forward. He also was able to provide a list of over a dozen opportunities each week to find free meals locally.

“Ideally, we’d like if they would partner with us,” Bage said. “When it comes to the homeless population, our focus is on outreach. We want to identify who they are and what services they need with a few simple questions.

“Then, when we have the chance to follow up, we try to find out if they were able to find food or housing … we are looking for as much feedback as we can get. Our goal is to help them get off the streets.”

Bage also pointed out that the land under the bridge doesn’t actually belong to the city – it belongs to the Florida Department of Transportation, which has a 45-year lease with the city.

The FDOT’s rules for the use of the area around the bridge falls under the “use of public right of way” and allows for use of the area for special events with “a permit from the appropriate county or city government,” which in this case could ostensibly be interpreted as the parks and recreation department, which would not issue a permit to Donaldson.

Jeff Peters, Recreation and Services Director for Fort Walton Beach, referred all questions on the matter to Bage.

Under the Fort Walton Beach Code of Ordinances for “Temporary and Special Events” there are six different definitions for possible special events and a sub-category under “Prohibition” of events without a permit. Nowhere in either list does it address free meals for the homeless, but Bage cited a line in the ordinance for “any other activity tending to create or cause crowds” as applying to Donaldson’s group and proof that they needed a permit.

There may be hope yet for the plight of Donaldson, Iburg and fellow volunteer Evelyn Lowery – in the form of a recent court ruling.

In June 2018, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has appellate jurisdiction over district courts in Northern Florida, ruled that feeding the homeless is “expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment” after a local chapter of Food Not Bombs sued the city of Fort Lauderdale over requiring a permit to share food in public parks.

In his ruling, Judge Adalberto Jordan explained that for the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the social pacifist group with over 5,000 chapters worldwide, “providing food in a visible, public space” is “an act of political solidarity meant to convey the organization’s message.”

“We read that (ruling), and we think that applies to us as well and it gives us hope,” Donaldson said. “Our mission is to feed people who are hungry and need a meal … whether that means they’re homeless or elderly or just helping whoever is in need of a meal that day.”