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Nick Cooper: Let Us Help People!

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Nick Cooper

I am a volunteer with Houston Food Not Bombs, a vegetarian anti-war group that has been in the news recently for speaking out against the new law requiring prior written permission to share food in public. For eighteen years, we have been helping the homeless, the hungry, the working poor, and the city of Houston by keeping members of this vulnerable, even desperate population fed.  We are the local chapter of a global movement with a simple and effective model — we obtain donations of healthy vegetarian food, cook at home or wherever is convenient, and share in public with hungry people. 

In the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, before government officials have in place any emergency food programs, we are already serving healthy meals in the streets. We were the first group sharing food with the homeless after Ike, Rita, and Katrina.  FEMA has referred people to us.  However, under the new law, if a hurricane comes through Houston next month, even under emergency conditions, it will be a crime for us to do what we do best — obtaining free healthy food and sharing it in public.

In March, without speaking to any of the volunteer groups doing this kind of work around town, and without any impact study, the Mayor and CM Rodriguez ramped up pressure for a new law to restrict and penalize food-sharers.  The opening salvo was a Houston Chronicle Commentary in which city officials and heavy hitters in the homeless service industry (at least one of whom earns a quarter million dollar a year salary) declared their support for a new law that would make any public sharing of home-made food illegal.  As with most politics in Houston, real estate investors were calling the shots.  These powerful interests not only have easy access to elected officials and to the editorial pages of the Chronicle, but also sit on the Board of the Coalition for the Homeless and host their events.  At the public sessions of City Council before the final vote, the few voices representing real estate were invited to cut to the front of the queue, filibustering for the cameras while the hundreds against this new law were pushed back. Homeless, volunteers, religious leaders, and supporters had important warnings about the impact of the new law on their lives and health, but the press, the Mayor, and many of the Council Members had left.  The Coalition for the Homeless even presented a report of its results from a faith-based and volunteer focus group in which every single participant opposed any law that included criminal penalties for those sharing food in public. The majority of City Council Members ignored it.

Parker scrapped the first draft, but immediately in its place came a hastily written, vague and confusing new “emergency” law which City Council approved on April 4th.  Now in Houston, it is illegal to share food with five or more needy people “without the advance written consent of the public or private property owner.”  There are other provisions in the law, but the crucial part is this new criminalizing of sharing food on public property.

This is not the first time a Food Not Bombs chapter has come up against these sorts of laws.  In San Francisco in 1988, and in Orlando in 2011, food sharing volunteers were criminalized and arrested. City officials then, like Annise Parker now, described the process for navigating the requirements as easy, while those attempting to navigate it disagreed.  In San Francisco and Orlando, they disagreed from behind bars.

The law includes no indication of how to obtain permission to share.  The Mayor herself was unable to answer a simple question about how to get permission.  Even if there were a clear process, many donations are spontaneous.  Often, prior written permission is not just a complication, it is impossible.  I can speak to this from long personal experience.  As a Food Not Bombs volunteer, I often find myself with extra, healthy food that needs to be distributed quickly, and I drive around to do so.  I can’t possibly know ahead of time when I will have this food, or exactly where I will find homeless people.  I can say with certainty that the people who receive this food really need it.

There is also no schedule of fines.  Not only do those sharing food risk breaking a law, there is no way to know what the penalty might be.  Does a first-time offender get a warning?  Do the fees ramp-up for repeat offenders to the maximum?  Even the simplest question of what the maximum penalty is seems to baffle the Mayor and the media.  Though they all seem to agree the maximum is $500 (1234), the relevant section of city code, Chapter 20-19 of the Houston Code of Ordinances, says $2,000.  Our group faces the prospect of $100,000 per week in fines for trying to help our hungry friends in the streets.

Many volunteers are intimidated by the vague law, the unknown fines, and the prospect of having to miss work to appear in court.  Some groups are trying to comply, some groups are continuing to share food without permission, and many are dropping out.  Already the number of hungry people arriving at Food Not Bombs has tripled, and many of them describe not having eaten in days.  This constitutes a human rights crisis in Houston manufactured by the Mayor and majority of City Council.

Talking to Houstonians about this law, we have been confronted with increasingly alarmist talking points.  Some are convinced that the backlash against the law amounts to a personal attack on the Mayor, or even an attempt to impeach her.  Others think the law will effectively better coordinate services, eliminate trash, or prevent food-poisoning.  Some have actually told us that the homeless downtown receive too much in food donations and they need less.  Whatever their source, these fallacious talking points have become so widespread, that we have written responses to each of them.

At a recent panel discussion on homelessness, one of the signatories to the Chronicle Commentary, Stephen Williams, the director of Health and Human Services, spoke about the need for creative and new approaches in ending homelessness now that so many agencies are laying off workers.  He said we all would have to listen to one another and work together in new ways that challenge our preconceptions.  I raised my hand to explain that Food Not Bombs has such an alternate model.  Unlike city agencies and non-profits that are experiencing lay-offs, we have more people sharing food than ever.  Unlike organizations that have to buy or store their food for long periods of time, we are often able to serve fresh donations within hours.  Unlike hierarchical institutional homeless shelters, we treat hungry people like people, not numbers.  Our group doesn’t need a penny of grant money.  We are secular, so folks of any faith can arrive certain that we are not using our food to try to convert them.  They are free to take some of our anti-war literature, or discuss politics, religion, or anything else with the volunteers, but they do so as friends, not as potential converts. All we need from the city is not to be criminalized.  Williams responded, disappointingly, that we just need to play by the new rules and that was that.  So much for really listening to one another!

Allies and sympathizers who are used to working in politics often ask me about trying to reach a compromise with the city on this issue.  The first step would be trying to ascertain what the Mayor wants, and to see if there are better ways to achieve that without penalizing volunteers.  We heard concerns about food poisoning, trash, avoiding duplication of service, and responded, spending time to write a set of solutions that don’t involve penalizing volunteers.  We submitted them to the Mayor’s advisers and City Council, but got no response.  It seems that as with the unconstitutional “civility” ordinances, the real goal of this law is something no Mayor can admit: to try to make the homeless disappear.  So far the law is not being enforced, but its existence has had a chilling effect of volunteerism, has diminished the food supply of vulnerable Houstonians, and has shown our local government’s lack of interest in the clear voices of the people who came out in massive numbers to speak out in favor of the freedom to share food with the hungry in public.

Nick Cooper is a musician with Free Radicals, documentary filmmaker, and local activist with indymedia and Food Not Bombs.

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9 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    I believe the ordinance won’t stop you from driving around handing out food to random folks on the street. I don’t object to that. I do object to larger scale feeds, where the feral humans (a distinguished form the temporarily down and out who generally stay at shelters) are attracted like rats to a carcass by well meaning do gooders who think they don’t have to deal with the aftermath of the feed – the litter, the urination, and the defecation. That’s why there should be a mechanism in place to require the feeders who use a public space to register themselves and post a bond that covers the cost of cleanup and disinfection, should they neglect to do so themselves. Go ahead and feed the homeless if that makes you happy, but don’t expect the rest of us to be happy about cleaning up the mess you create – that’s your job.

  2. Paul Kubosh says:

    Ross you said,

    “don’t expect the rest of us to be happy about cleaning up the mess you create”

    New laws are not needed to address the problems that you mention. This ordinance that was passed is not the “mechanism” that you are seeking. This ordinance is aimed at driving the homeless to federally funded shelters to drive up head count so the shelters can recieve more funding. I am assuming you will vote against the Charter Amendment and for more government regulation.

  3. debra says:

    Since this ordinance passed in April, the number of men, women and children (some as young as three years old) who have come to share a meal with us at Food Not Bombs has increased to greater than 100 per night. These are not “feral humans” – a term I find repugnant and dehumanizing- but rather individuals who often times suffer from mental illness, addiction or simply poor choices and circumstances. No matter their reasons for needing the aid of groups like Food Not Bombs and others, playing fast and loose with the food supply of the most vulnerable among us is loathsome. The ordinance does indeed have the potential to stop Nick and people like him from driving around and sharing food with groups of needy people throughout the city. Whether you choose to believe it is altogether a moot point. When Food Not Bombs leaves the area where we have shared a meal, the area is cleaner than when we arrived. There is no mess to be cleaned, the trash is taken away and the people who have been fed are content, many of them having assisted in the clean up effort, and they have moved on. Before you decide, perhaps you will take the time to investigate for yourself what is really happening in your city.

  4. bio filo says:

    Ross, food not bombs are helping clean up your societies mess! Feeding the homeless, mentally ill, and children that Your society has made ,and has thrown away , like trash, which they do not know what to do with either. To outlaw a solution to taking care of these people , is well., par for the course, and is why We have these many ,many problems in the first place.

  5. Nick Cooper says:

    Response to Ross:
    > I believe the ordinance won’t stop you from driving around handing out food to random folks on the street.

    This is incorrect. When I drive around and distribute food, often more than 4 people approach my vehicle, and there are often cops nearby. This means that if the law starts being enforced (cops have not done so yet) they could ticket me. It also means that others who might choose to drive around now have to consider whether or not they will take this risk.

    > I don’t object to that. I do object to larger scale feeds, where the feral humans (a distinguished form the temporarily down and out who generally stay at shelters) are attracted like rats to a carcass by well meaning do gooders who think they don’t have to deal with the aftermath of the feed – the litter, the urination, and the defecation. That’s why there should be a mechanism in place to require the feeders who use a public space to register themselves and post a bond that covers the cost of cleanup and disinfection, should they neglect to do so themselves. Go ahead and feed the homeless if that makes you happy, but don’t expect the rest of us to be happy about cleaning up the mess you create – that’s your job.

    Let me ask you a hypothetical question. Imagine that now that sharing food is illegal, people just start giving out money (which is still legal) to the homeless instead. Imagine the homeless under Pierce Elevated take some of this money, go to McDonald’s and buy value meals. Imagine that under the Pierce Elevated, McDonald’s wrappers were scattered around – who if anyone should be fined $2,000?

  6. Torry Mercer says:

    This essay by Nick really gets to the heart of the problem which is how municipal governments “manage” homelessness in an economic system that savagely creates homeless people like waste in an industrial process. We like our industrial waste out of sight, mind, and smell. We don’t want folks out on the town for an evening seeing the social collateral damage of our capitalist private profit system. The Mayor and Chamber of Commerce want folks to only associate positive images to their precious central business district. It keeps property value and rents high. Crime, poverty, homelessness, and any other dysfunction must be banished to the hinter-burbs. Democrat mayors are more often guilty of this as Republican Functionalists can view homelessness as an example to enforce dominant conformist norms and feeds into their social Darwinist sociopathology.
    Food Not Bombs started in San Francisco by author Keith McHenry as a way to draw homeless people out of the shadows of the forlorn homeless shelters and into the light of bourgeois society by feeding the needy right on the steps of City Hall. From Its naissance it was conceived as an act of civil disobedience to shine a light on the folly of a system that institutionalizes war profiteering and must sterilize public opinion to maintain the profit margin. It was an effective Yippie-like PR campaign against U.S. foreign policy and against the class stratification enforcement of relegating the poorest of the poor to discreet locals where they would not tweak the sentiments or nostrils of the fancy folks.
    The local Food Not Bombs has grown into a unique social organization that is special because of its non incorporated and flat structure. It doesn’t have a tax category or profit motive and operates by consensus for the good of all. It could be a model for future social organizations from families to factories. Right now, thanks to Parker and her business district cronies, it looks like it will be a model of civil disobedience.
    Round one, ”ding.”

  7. Brandy says:

    Changing this ordinance MUST be a group effort. All the misconceptions of who is homeless and what homeless people do MUST be dispelled. As Nick mentioned, homeless people are PEOPLE, not numbers, not problems. America prides itself for being so civilized but there is nothing civil about creating a law that prohibits the right to feed those that are hungry and thirsty.

    Without a food, water, safety, or sleep humans become irritable, fearful, desperate, frustrated, depressed, and energy depleted. This is a human condition not a homeless condition. Any organization or individual that contributes to the basic need of another human is investing in their own health and safety as well as the health and safety of others in their community.

    The mayor has said asking permission for food sharing on public property is just like asking permission for food sharing on private property but that’s not true. On private property, all you have to do is knock on the door and ask the owner for permission. Asking permission for food sharing on public property will not be that simple. Restrictions, paperwork, wait time, possible fees, AND they can change their mind at anytime. Anyone trying to get state or government funding, permission, answers, etc. know what kind of time and energy goes into accomplishing goals. What a mess!

    When we, the people demand state action and assist to implement viable solutions for the growing number of people and families without food, water, and shelter our community as a whole benefits and prospers. That’s not a belief, that’s a researched fact. Self-sustainable communities, for example creates jobs, purpose, funding, counseling, and peer accountability.

    “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. ” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  8. […] you know, I have been running a series of guest posts on a variety of topics. When I invited Nick Cooper to write about his experiences with the homeless feeding ordinance, I also contacted the Mayor’s office to […]

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