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Homeless feeding bans: Well-meaning policy or war on the poor?

June 11, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • A homeless aid group distributes meals in Dana Point in 2008.
A homeless aid group distributes meals in Dana Point in 2008. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

You can’t just feed the homeless outdoors in Philadelphia anymore; you now need a permit.

In Dallas, you can give away food only with official permission first.

Laws tightening regulations on aid to the homeless are popping up across the country, according to a recent USA Today report: “Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, Oklahoma City and more than 50 other cities have previously adopted some kind of anti-camping or anti-food-sharing laws, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.”

So the question being asked by many critics is: Are American officials trying to help the poor -- or legislate them out of sight?

“Starting in about 2006, several cities began arresting, fining, and otherwise oppressing private individuals and nonprofits that feed the homeless and less fortunate,” Baylen Linnekin writes at Reason.com. He cites a Las Vegas ban that Nevada's American Civil Liberties Union chapter called “among the first of its kind in the country.”

Such bans are now more commonplace, Linnekin writes: “In New York City, for example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned food donations to the homeless earlier this year ‘because the city can’t assess their salt, fat and fiber content.’ ”

City officials usually cite safety and public health when trying to regulate the feeding of homeless people, which is often the province of religious groups for whom giving alms and comfort to the poor is as much an act of compassion as a part of religious doctrine.

In Philadelphia — where the ACLU launched a lawsuit last week attacking the ban on the outdoor feeding of homeless people, enacted June 1 — the plaintiffs in the suit include Chosen 300 Ministries Inc., the Rev. Brian Jenkins, the Welcome Church, the Rev. Violet Little, the King’s Jubilee, the Rev. Cranford Coulter and others, according to the Pennsylvania Record.

“Food sharing programs for the homeless also express an important message about the desperate circumstances of the poor,” the suit says, according to the Record. “The programs have been hugely successful, furthering the religious mission of the plaintiffs and providing, at no cost to the city, a needed social service. The programs have functioned continuously without significant interference by government officials or adverse effect on the public interest.”

The suit against the new policy, which the ACLU claims is a violation of the 1st Amendment, also says that sharing food in a “centrally located public place — rather than a remote indoor location — serves the critical purpose of bringing widespread attention to the plight of the homeless,” according to the Record.

Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, told USA Today that the ban was intended to give more dignity to homeless people and to force them indoors, where they could be exposed to other health services.

"This is about an activity on city park land that the mayor thinks is better suited elsewhere," he told USA Today. "We think it's a much more dignified place to be in an indoor sit-down restaurant. … The overarching policy goal of the mayor is based on a belief that hungry people deserve something more than getting a ham sandwich out on the side of the street."

Nutter also said during a March radio interview: “You can still feed and provide food service outdoors if you get a permit, which is free, and go through a food safety program, which is also free,” according to Philadelphia Weekly. “So, many people [can] continue to provide the service outside their doors.”

Regulations on the homeless and on altruism have long drawn criticism that their opponents are simply trying to push the homeless out of sight and away from the tourist areas. In Philadelphia, that means moving the city’s homeless people off the city’s Parkway and into a temporary food distribution location near City Hall.

A 2011 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that surveyed 234 American cities found that 40% had banned sleeping in public places and 53% had banned begging — leaving homeless advocates to ask: Where are people supposed to sleep and how are they supposed to eat?

“In what has become a familiar pattern, the government defunds services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement,” wrote “Nickel and Dimed” author Barbara Ehrenreich last year in an essay titled “Turning Poverty into an American Crime.”

“Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Generate no public-sector jobs, then penalize people for falling into debt," she wrote. "The experience of the poor, and especially poor people of color, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks.”

In Philadelphia, the idea for the ban arose after the local Occupy movement started feeding the homeless without a universal standard for food safety, city officials told Philadelphia Weekly.

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nation@latimes.com

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