Should Cities Restrict Food to the Homeless?

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.

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