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.

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