You Can’t Share Food in 15 U.S. Cities

More then 15 U.S. cities, including Seattle and Houston, have passed laws restricting feeding homeless people in public in the last two years, according to a report released Oct. 20 by the National Coalition for the Homeless. 

Most commonly, these measures require written consent, permits, or fees for any public food distribution, the report says. In Houston, groups that don’t get a permit face fines of up to $2,000. In Raleigh, North Carolina, anyone serving meals in a city park needs to get a one-day permit that costs $800.

“When Americans volunteer to help the homeless, they don’t expect to be fined or arrested for sharing food,” says Michael Stoops, the coalition’s director of community organizing. Such laws have a “chilling effect” on volunteers and will lead to “more hunger” among homeless people, he adds.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, passed a similar measure Oct. 22, after an all-night meeting by city commissioners. It prohibits outdoor food distribution within 500 feet of residential property or another food program, and requires the groups handing the food out to provide portable toilets. “Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness,” a city lobbyist told the commissioners. “Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing.” The National Coalition report called that sentiment “one of the most narrow-minded ideas when it comes to homelessness and food-sharing.” 

Restrictions on providing food are part of a national pattern of laws criminalizing homelessness, says Stoops. “Just about every city in the country has adopted laws targeted at the homeless population,” such as San Francisco’s ban on sitting on city streets. Fort Lauderdale earlier this year outlawed sleeping on public property downtown, panhandling at major intersections, and storing belongings on public property. The coalition is considering legal and political challenges to those measures as well as to the food ordinance, Stoops adds.

“I’m not surprised that in the warmer areas of the country, there’s a step-up in trying to stop people from feeding people,” says Keith McHenry of Food Not Bombs, which has been feeding homeless people—and getting arrested for it—for more than 25 years. Homeless people, especially single individuals, often migrate to warmer places in winter, he explains. Los Angeles is also considering a ban on distributing food, he adds. 

The Fort Lauderdale area had about 2,800 “chronically homeless” people in 2013, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.

Another approach, used in Salt Lake City, is laws requiring people serving food to get the same kind of safety training and permits mandated for restaurant workers and other commercial food-handlers. In St. Louis, individuals and groups can only serve prepackaged food unless they pay for a permit. Some places, such as Seattle, have relocated food programs either by law or in response to pressure from neighbors.

Charlotte, North Carolina, however, practiced a more humane form of relocation. Although it banned feeding people outside in 2010, the Mecklenburg County government provides a building where organizations can serve meals indoors, and it also stations security guards and social workers to help homeless people get public-assistance benefits there. One county worker told the Charlotte Observer last year that a sign the indoor program had created “a safe and compassionate environment” was that it had attracted people with children. The city has an estimated 7,000 homeless people.

Some such laws have been overturned on the grounds that they violate people’s free speech and freedom of religion. In Philadelphia, a religious group called the Chosen 300 got a 2012 law banning the feeding of large groups of people in public parks suspended after they challenged it in federal court. In Dallas, two church groups charged with violating the city’s food-sharing ordinance in 2007 argued that it interfered with their duty to share food and prayer with the homeless, and won a federal-court ruling that the law contravened the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, three men arrested in 2010 for feeding homeless people without a permit (along with inciting a riot and resisting arrest when they challenged the officer) won a total of $125,000 when the city settled their civil-rights lawsuit last year.


A version of this article originally appeared on Dissent News Wire.