Prohibitions on Sharing Food with People Experiencing Homelessness.
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I. Executive Summary
The criminalization of homelessness in the United States remains a severe problem. Through measures ranging from anti-camping laws to selective enforcement of public intoxication laws, cities continue to implement measures that criminalize being homeless.
In the past few years, many cities have adopted a new tactic – one that targets not only homeless persons but also individual citizens and groups who attempt to share food with them.
Types of Food Sharing Restrictions
Cities use a wide variety of ordinances, policies, and tactics to discourage individuals and groups from sharing food with homeless and other poor persons. Over the past year and a half:
- The Las Vegas city council passed an ordinance that bans “the providing of food or meals to the indigent for free or for a nominal fee” in city parks;
- The City of Wilmington, N.C., passed an ordinance that prohibits the sharing of food on city streets and sidewalks;
- The Orlando, Fla., city council passed an ordinance that prohibits sharing food with more than 25 people in city parks without a permit and limits groups to doing so to two times a year;
Even as they pursue measures to target groups that share food with homeless people, most cities do not have adequate shelter or food resources to meet the need. According to the US Conference of Mayor’s 2006 Hunger and Homelessness Survey, an average of 23% of overall emergency shelter requests went unmet, while 29% of shelter requests by homeless families went unmet. The Mayor’s Survey also reported an average increase of 7% in the overall requests for emergency food assistance, with 74% of surveyed cities reporting an increase. In addition, 23% of the requests for emergency food assistance went unmet and 18% of requests made by families went unmet. Hunger is a severe problem for poor Americans, and especially for those who are homeless. A study published by the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness surveyed homeless people nationally and found:
- 28% sometimes or often do not get enough to eat, compared with 12% of poor American adults.
- 20% eat one meal a day or less.
- 40% went one or more days in the last 30 days without anything to eat because they could not afford food, compared with 3% of poor Americans.
Further, according to a 2000 report by the General Accounting Office:
- Most homeless people are probably eligible to receive food stamps, but only 37% receive them.
Punishment for violating food sharing restrictions can be extreme:
- In Orlando, police arrested a man who served food to 30 people in a public park for violating a city ordinance that prohibits sharing food with more than 25 people without a permit. He faced a penalty of up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail for violating this law.
- In Dallas, anyone caught sharing food with a homeless person without a permit may be fined up to $2,000 and/or jailed for up to six months.
Constructive Alternatives to Food Sharing Restrictions
As some cities take steps to punish, restrict, and discourage efforts to share food with homeless persons, other cities have explored novel ways to facilitate these efforts.
- The City of Cleveland contracted with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to bring religious congregations, Food Not Bombs, and individuals who serve food to homeless people together to improve and coordinate outdoor food programs.
- In Oregon, after first implementing an extended year-round free lunch program for children, the Coos Bay Public Schools have begun offering the meals to adults as well for the price of $1.
- San Francisco has taken advantage of a provision of the Food Stamp Program that allows authorized restaurants to accept food stamps from homeless individuals.
- Instead of penalizing them, cities should collaborate with food sharing groups to effectively address the problems of hunger and homelessness.
- Cities should help bring homeless persons into existing programs by reaching out to food sharing groups that have already established relationships with homeless individuals and are thus best positioned to facilitate goals of city programs.
- Cities should work with advocates and service providers to press Congress to increase food stamp benefits and restore eligibility for non-disabled homeless adults between 18-50 who cannot meet minimum work requirements.
- Cities should help address the problems of hunger and homelessness by working with advocates and providers to improve access to food stamps and other food resources for homeless persons.
- Cities and the federal government should comply with globally recognized human rights norms by removing food sharing restrictions and ensuring access to food stamps for homeless people.
- 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.
Las Vegas, Nev., Code of Ordinances, ch. 13.36, art. I, § 13.36.055 (2007).
Wilmington, N.C., Code of Ordinances ch. 11, art. III, § 11-47 (2007).
Orlando, Fla., Code of Ordinances, ch. 18A, § 18A.01 (2007).
U.S. Conference of Mayors, Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A Status Report on Hunger & Homelessness in America’s Cities – a 23-City Survey 4 (2006).
U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve – Findings of the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients 7-1 (1999).
Dallas City Code § 17-10.2.