Prohibitions on Sharing Food with People Experiencing Homelessness.
As accessing food is a basic, well-recognized human right, cities should not be passing laws that make it more difficult for hungry people to obtain food. Both food sharing groups and cities should work toward the common goal: ending hunger and homelessness. Many cities state that they share this goal; yet despite city arguments to the contrary, food sharing restrictions demonstrate an ineffective and often destructive method of achieving this common goal.
For instance, some city arguments in favor of restrictions suggest that food sharing by private groups and individuals only serves to keep homeless persons homeless and away from shelters and other services. However, these arguments overlook the fact that many homeless persons suffer from mental illness, physical disabilities, inability to travel, or fear of institutional aid. For these individuals, outdoor food sharing programs may be their only source for nourishment.
Other city arguments suggest an interest in protecting the quality and safety of the food that homeless persons receive and ensuring that food sharing activities serve as part of a city’s larger fight against homelessness. While these are laudable goals, criminalizing charitable groups who are willing to aid cities in their already budget-strapped efforts against homelessness does not further these interests.
Finally, some city arguments suggest that food sharing can continue but should be moved out of downtown areas and away from tourist and business locations. Moving food sharing operations away from city centers also moves homeless persons away from other services and programs upon which they rely for shelter and aid.
- Instead of penalizing them, cities should collaborate with food sharing groups to effectively address the problems of hunger and homelessness. If the goal is bringing homeless persons into existing programs, cities should reach out to food sharing groups to coordinate provision of food and educate providers on how to help homeless persons access services. Food providers can be an important part of this process, as they have already established relationships with homeless individuals. Cleveland’s coordinated model serves as a good example of this process.
- Cities should also examine how they can assist homeless persons in accessing federal benefits like food stamps. As participation rates among the homeless population in the Food Stamp Program are relatively low, cities should work with their local food stamp offices to increase outreach and enrollment in the program. In addition, cities should pursue innovative ways to use the Food Stamp Program, such as San Francisco’s initiative to allow restaurants to accept food stamps.
- Cities should work with advocates and service providers to press Congress to increase food stamp benefits and restore benefits for non-disabled homeless adults between the ages of 18-50 who are unable to meet minimum work requirements.
- Cities should work with advocates at the state and federal level to ensure the basic needs of homeless persons are met, including housing and health care.
Ultimately, in the face of scarce resources and shrinking budgets, cities would be well-served to utilize rather than criminalize groups with whom they share a common goal: ending hunger and homelessness.