Mayor Parker does a third revision of the controversial proposed ordinance about feeding the homeless.
Parker has whittled an original proposal that would have set rules on preparation, storage and server training down to a plan that mandates only that groups get written permission from the owner of the property to serve meals there. If the property is a city park, the rule still would apply, with permission granted or denied by the city parks director.
Councilman James Rodriguez, whose District I includes downtown, said that although the proposed rules have been scaled back, “We need to start somewhere.” A long-term strategy to alleviate homelessness also will have to include more money for mental health services and long-term housing, he said.
Several of the city’s largest homeless services groups, such as Star of Hope, support the plan. Several smaller charitable groups still oppose the new rules and have distributed T-shirts to homeless people downtown that bear Parker’s smiling visage and the words “The homeless can still eat in public, but now you have to ask me for permission.”
“Anybody that wants to share food anywhere has to have written permission,” said Nick Cooper of Food Not Bombs, which serves meals four times a week in the plaza of the Central Library and has submitted a substitute ordinance seeking a commitment from the city to provide more trash cans and public bathrooms downtown.
According to City Attorney David Feldman, the new ordinance is needed because current laws have “proven ineffective in preventing the sanitation problems that accrue at popular feeding sites” and because as things stand now “the onus is on the property owner to confront and report trespassers”. Stace calls this a “better explanation of a bad idea”. I don’t think it’s an adequate explanation, and as such I can’t say if it’s a good idea or a bad idea. Are there any examples the city can provide of property owners who were bothered by trespassers and couldn’t get the cops to do anything about it for whatever the reason? Putting it another way, is there someone who can testify that this proposed ordinance would help them? We’ve heard quite a bit from those who say that each version of this ordinance would hurt them, and they make a statement that is both powerful and un-answered. When we were talking about food safety and litter, there was at least an intuitive reason for this ordinance. I don’t feel like I have that any more. Who is this ordinance for?
I posed those questions to the Mayor’s office via email, and am awaiting an answer. I don’t know why that information wasn’t front and center from the beginning, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. I do have these two documents from the Mayor’s office with background information about the ordinance and a report on Charitable Food Service prepared by Marilyn Brown, President and CEO of Coalition of the Homeless Houston and Harris County; I also emailed my questions about the ordinance to her. That document summarized four focus groups done with different audiences that have a stake in this discussion – current and former homeless individuals; downtown businesses and management districts; faith-based and volunteer organizations that feed the homeless; and other service providers who also provide food. It’s pretty informal but has some interesting data nonetheless. Neither document answers my question, but they tell me a lot more than I knew before. We’ll see where this goes from here.