Should Cities Restrict Food to the Homeless?

In a plaza in downtown Gainesville, Florida, 50-year-old Kim Justice sat cross-legged on a towel, her only cushion on the concrete. She shuffled and sorted a deck of well-worn playing cards as cars drove by on a busy road nearby. She said she's unable to remember how long she's been living there, and is not sure where she'll go next.

Justice was one of about 30 homeless people who gathered in the plaza on a recent Sunday afternoon. Some had been there for just a few days, others for years. One man told that he'd lived at the plaza on and off for 10 years.

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A federal plan released June 22 promises to help people like Justice by ending homelessness among veterans and the chronically homelessness by 2015 and by eradicating homelessness among families, youth and children by 2020. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness constructed the plan, which is the nation's first plan to prevent and end homelessness.

The plan includes increased leadership and involvement at the local, state and government levels; increased access to stable and affordable housing; more job opportunities for the homeless or people at risk of becoming homeless; and improved access to health care, income-support and work-support programs.

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Local Governments Struggle to Address Homelessness

The federal plan comes at a time when many local governments are struggling to find ways to address homelessness in their communities. More and more cities across the U.S. have adopted ordinances that restrict sharing food with the homeless, often in an attempt to move them to different areas of town or encourage them to seek help in shelters rather than in public parks.

One of these cities is Gainesville, where the city government recently started enforcing an ordinance that limits the St. Francis House Homeless Shelter and Soup Kitchen, just south of the downtown area, to serving 130 meals in a 24-hour period. The ordinance has been in place since the early 1990s, but in 2009 residents and business owners began to complain that the soup kitchen was not in compliance with the rule. So the city started enforcing it and, while it has found no violations since then, further ones would result in the revoking of St. Francis House's permit to serve food to the needy.

Gainesville Defends Ordinance

Gainesville City Commissioner Jeanna Mastrodicasa said businesses in the downtown area, where most of the homeless are concentrated, have suffered because patrons complain of homeless people approaching them and asking for food or money.

"One of the issues we've got is, how do you balance the vibrancy of a business community with the very important need of keeping individuals fed and safe?" Mastrodicasa told

She said the St. Francis House is one reason, among many, that the homeless are in the downtown area. Mastrodicasa said the meal limit is mainly an effort to distribute the homeless and needy across the city so that the downtown area isn't the only area feeling the impact.

"We've had a lot of really difficult challenges with this," she said. "And it isn't that the city is trying to be heartless, we really do want to help facilitate."

Justice goes to the St. Francis House every day to eat. She gets in line early, so she's never been turned away. She doesn't think there should be a limit on how much food someone gives to the hungry.

Justice said she used to be a manager at a restaurant, where she would save food that was to be thrown out and instead give it to three homeless men who stopped by every night.

"It made me feel good," said Justice, who attributes her current homelessness to an abusive boyfriend. "I was helping somebody out."

Now that she is homeless, she feels she can relate to the situation those three men were in. "I'm on the same link they're on," she said. "It brings back a lot of memories of how I helped some people out a long time ago, and I'm thankful for it."

Other cities, such as Dallas and Santa Monica, also have laws that limit sharing food with the homeless. The National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty drew attention to this trend in a 2007 report called "Feeding Intolerance," which listed about 20 cities and one county in the U.S. with ordinances affecting how food is shared with the homeless.

Tulin Ozdeger, a lawyer with the NLCHP, sees that trend continuing.

"We've seen that cities have continued to apply or enact these restrictions," she told The NCH and NCLHP will be releasing an updated version of "Feeding Intolerance" in the next few weeks listing more cities with ordinances regulating the sharing of food with the homeless.

"I think a lot of cities have the misguided notion that when people give food to homeless individuals where they're living, that somehow that's perpetuating homelessness," said Ozdeger. "Or they may just want to move homeless people out of public areas, and this is one way they think they can do that."

As Demand for Food Assistance Goes Unmet, Lawsuits Crop Up

Most of the ordinances restrict people from feeding the homeless in public areas by requiring permits, licenses or city authorization for groups exceeding certain numbers.

"Cities are making [homelessness] worse by essentially discouraging what private resources are out there to help solve the problem," said Ozdeger. "Cities don't have enough resources to deal with the issue, so they should be looking to other resources."

Last year, 27 U.S. cities reported an average of a 26 percent increase in the demand for emergency food assistance -- the largest average increase since 1991 -- but 25 percent of that overall demand went unmet, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Hunger and Homelessness Survey.

Mastrodicasa said Gainesville is looking to resources outside of the city government, such as nonprofits and churches. She said homeless advocates, charitable organizations and religious groups need to coordinate and find a way to solve the problem of where and how to feed the homeless. She suggested these groups look into serving meals at another place in town that does not fall under the 130-meal limit ordinance.

Just as quickly as these ordinances are cropping up, there are lawsuits arising to challenge them. In 2008 a district court judge struck down an Orlando ordinance that prohibited large group feedings of homeless people, saying that the ordinance violated First Amendment rights. The City of Las Vegas is trying to resolve a lawsuit filed against it in 2006 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada on behalf of several homeless advocates, such as Gail Sacco.

Sacco, a retired restaurant owner, has routinely shared food with the homeless in public parks in Las Vegas since 2005, and she was cited for violating a city ordinance that prohibits gatherings of 25 people or more in a park without a permit.

In June, the city of Las Vegas and homeless advocates, including Sacco, signed an agreement that would dismiss the lawsuit. It also calls for a change in the ordinance to make it 75 instead of 25 people before a permit is required. The agreement must first be reviewed and finalized by the city council. That's expected to happen sometime in July or August.

In the meantime, Sacco said she continues to serve food to the homeless every Sunday in a local park. "It's my religious belief, my moral belief, my political belief," she said.

Sacco said asking the homeless to find food elsewhere is not feasible.

"Our summer temperatures are about 115," she said. "If you have homeless people living down four or five miles away from the social services, and they have no bus tickets and no money, they're not going to be able to walk all the way to those shelters to eat, or to sleep, or to get social services."

In Gainesville, Kim Justice said she relies on charitable groups to eat and survive. Some of those groups come to the plaza and bring food to the homeless. If this source were cut off, she said, she knows what would happen. She'd go hungry.

And as for the new federal plan to end homelessness, Justice said she isn't sure what to think of it.

"Maybe they can build a shelter for all of us to live in," she said, as she motioned to the roughly 30 homeless people around her in the plaza. When asked if she thinks the government can come through for her, she said, "I hope so. I'm waiting." contributor Amy Rigby is a member of the University of Florida ABC News on Campus bureau.