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The Mayor’s office on the homeless feeding ordinance

As 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 ask if there was someone they could point me to that would write about their experiences. Ultimately they sent me the following, which came from their office.

Contrary to the inaccurate information being circulated by various groups and individuals, it is not illegal to feed the homeless in the Houston.

The City appreciates those who take part in the charitable act of providing food for those in need and agrees that such activities are of benefit to the health, safety and welfare of our community. There is recognition that those who are unable to provide food for themselves often must be fed outdoors by entities dedicated to providing charitable food service. There are no restrictions on an individual who is moved to share food with another. It applies only when sharing food with six or more.

The city also recognizes the rights of property owners.

There are 38 known local groups and organizations that provide food service to the homeless or others in need of a free meal. Some of these organizations, like the Star of Hope, Palmer Way Station, Bread of Life and the Salvation Army, feed inside their facilities. They have licensed kitchens, trained volunteer staff, are in compliance with the city’s health and safety standards and they feed the hungry on a well-known and routine schedule.

Unfortunately, there are many other street food service operations that do not adhere to routine schedules. For example, there is one location, east of I-59 near the convention center, at which a dozen different charitable organizations line up every Saturday morning all seeking to provide breakfast to the same group of people. There is more than needed for the homeless who show up. In the end, a lot of it winds up left behind on the ground – creating a nuisance for property owners. No one wants to see our streets littered with trash.

With the above principles in mind, Houston City Council last spring amended Chapter 20 of the Code of Ordinances. The only mandatory addition to the revised ordinance is a requirement to obtain written permission from a property owner, public or private, before utilizing the property for charitable food service. Again, despite arguments to the contrary, this new requirement is not onerous. In fact, three organizations have requested and been granted permission from the Houston Department of Health and Human Services Department (HDHHS) for food service events at a city-owned property at 205 Chartres Street.

The amended ordinance also created the voluntary Recognized Charitable Food Service Provider Program. This voluntary initiative, jointly coordinated by the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County and HDHHS, put in place a process of coordination, training and recognition for those individuals and organizations which provide such food services. The goals are to improve the quality, quantity and availability of food for those who may not have the resources to provide for themselves. In short, its aim is to coordinate volunteer efforts so that the needed amount of food is available at known serving locations.

There has been good response to the free-of-charge food safety classes. The first classes were held at HDHHS on June 7 and at The Beacon on June 23. Staff from the Coalition explained the Coalition’s role in the program, and HDHHS staff provided the food safety training. Twenty four people, representing thirteen organizations, have attended a class to date. Future classes are scheduled for the 4th Saturday of each month through November at The Beacon. To register for one of these classes call HDHHS at 832-393-5100. Information about the program is also available at that number or on the HDHHS Website, http://www.houstontx.gov/health/homeless.html.

Organizations desiring to participate in the program are required to:

  • Register basic contact information with the City of Houston
  • Cooperate with the City in scheduling any food service event at which five or more individuals will be fed
  • Follow basic hygiene, sanitation and food safety rules provided by HDHHS
  • Have at least one person at each food service site who has completed the free training in sanitary food preparation at HDHHS
  • Authorize inspections by HDHHS of their kitchens, transport vehicle and the like
  • Implement changes suggested by HDHHS
  • Clean up after each food service event

The names and addresses of organizations that abide by the above requirements will be listed on the City’s website. In addition, they will be entitled to use their designation as a Recognized Charitable Food Service Provider in their publications.

Registration and coordination of street feeding operations is not a new concept. Ten of the largest US cities already require it, and nine of these cities also require routine inspection for adherence to public health standards. In Houston, we took a Houston approach. We identified a problem and then listened to the community for feedback. The end result is a workable program that allows for coordination and ensures property is not abused. This approach in no way inhibits the many acts of charity conducted daily by Houstonians.

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13 Comments

  1. Paul Kubosh says:

    “In the end, a lot of it winds up left behind on the ground – creating a nuisance for property owners. No one wants to see our streets littered with trash.”

    If that is a problem then show up and write them tickets. I assure you that will stop the problem. How many tickets have been written? I would say probably none. Hmmmmmm so when we turn in the signatures do you think they will put it on the ballott?

  2. Houstonian says:

    Asking permission from the property owner is no big deal. Mr Kubosh, how about after you overturn the ordinance, your office becomes the next large feeding station, without your permission.

  3. Paul Kubosh says:

    HOUSTONIAN, I WILL SAY THIS ONE MORE TIME. IT APPLIES ONLY TO PUBLIC PROPERTY. PAY ATTENTION. GEEEEZ

  4. Houstonian says:

    Youre incorrect, Mr Kubosh. Look above “public or private”.

  5. Eric Weinmann says:

    There has been a huge public misinformation campaign on the issue. It is not illegal to feel the homeless – it is illegal, however, to utilize private property without permission to distribute food. Let’s apply the same standard to any other charitable endeavor. Would it be reasonable to require a charitable group, organized or otherwise, from receiving consent of the property owner to to provide medical screenings? Of course it would. Would it be reasonable to ticket individuals for trespassing on private property, even if they are well meaning? Of course it would. This ordinance is no different.

    Whats more, the garbage and sanitary mess left behind on property – public or private – creates a public nuisance, and an expensive one at that.

    I understand groups are playing politics with the issue. We heard from many individuals during the debate who more interested in themselves than the homeless; We heard from kids who felt this issue, though they have never done meaningful charity work before, and still have not done any today, would be a good outlet for their frustrations toward life. Fine. What’s amazing is that the focus of the debate centers around narcissism and posturing and not providing a valuable tool for the homeless.

    There should be a greater focus on preventing homelessness, placing the long-term homeless in suitable mental health, controlled substance rehab or other appropriate care and working with the short-term homeless to quickly bring back stability in their lives. This interest should be balanced with the interests of private property owners. However, the debate does not focus on the actual homeless – it’s posturing and a bloated sense of self-importance.

  6. Paul Kubosh says:

    Houstonian, the proposed charter amendment does not remove the private property restriction.

  7. Paul Kubosh says:

    Eric, when you are posting how about a little for disclosure. Since you posted while you were at work then clearly you must be giving the opinion of Andrew Burks. Is that true or are you on the internet while at work?

  8. JJ says:

    While at work and on a City-owned computer.

  9. NPCHoustonian says:

    The only person spreading information here (and waisting tax payer money I might add) is Eric Weinmann. He knows that the effort to throw out the ordinace respects private property. He is taking the position of the mayor in suggesting that the city is the owner of public property. I would urge Mr. Weinmann to stop trying to be cute and get back to work. Plus, the “kids” involved do more for the community than you will ever so please keep you judgement to yourself. Oh yeah, get back to work.

  10. Nick Cooper says:

    Correcting the errors!

    > Contrary to the inaccurate information being circulated by various groups and individuals, it is not illegal to feed the homeless in the Houston.

    Perhaps you stopped listening halfway through the sentence? The information we are circulating is that is illegal to serve more than 5 people in need on public property without prior written permission. That information is accurate, and can be found in Sec. 20-251 – 20-252 of the Houston Code of Ordinances.

    > The City appreciates those who take part in the charitable act of providing food for those in need

    Appreciation is nice, but a bare minimum to reflect it would have been to meet with the volunteers before starting to draft a law. Since the city failed to do that, there was a huge backlash to the horrible law they wrote. Again at this point the city had the opportunity to meet with volunteers to re-work the law, and again the city did not do so and pushed through a law that faith-based and volunteer groups opposed unanimously at the focus-group meeting.

    > There are 38 known local groups and organizations that provide food service to the homeless or others in need of a free meal. Some of these organizations, like the Star of Hope, Palmer Way Station, Bread of Life and the Salvation Army, feed inside their facilities. They have licensed kitchens, trained volunteer staff, are in compliance with the city’s health and safety standards and they feed the hungry on a well-known and routine schedule.

    Listen to the homeless speaking about the experience with food poisoning at Star of Hope: http://www.indybay.org/uploads/2012/03/15/starhopevsfnb.mp3
    Food Not Bombs has an extremely routine schedule and much higher standards of healthy meals.

    > No one wants to see our streets littered with trash.

    Then write a trash ordinance, or better yet, put out sufficient trash receptacles. The ordinance change has nothing to do with trash and everything to do with needing prior written permission to serve food anywhere in public.

    > With the above principles in mind, Houston City Council last spring amended Chapter 20 of the Code of Ordinances. The only mandatory addition to the revised ordinance is a requirement to obtain written permission from a property owner, public or private, before utilizing the property for charitable food service. Again, despite arguments to the contrary, this new requirement is not onerous. In fact, three organizations have requested and been granted permission from the Houston Department of Health and Human Services Department (HDHHS) for food service events at a city-owned property at 205 Chartres Street.

    It is a problem that all groups will have to have permission to serve in public anywhere in Houston. This is not contradicted by the fact that the City gave permission to serve in one location. Individuals sharing food often do so spontaneously, when they get food and where they find hungry people. They are dropping out, intimidated by the possibility of $2,000 fines. This creates a food supply problem for a vulnerable population.

    >We identified a problem and then listened to the community for feedback. The end result is a workable program that allows for coordination and ensures property is not abused.

    This is not correct. The feedback from faith based and volunteer organizations at the focus-group meeting was 100% against any mandatory restrictions, and the feedback among City Council Members was that $2,000 maximum was too high, and $500 should be the maximum. In both cases, the Mayor ignored the clear feedback and ramped up pressure for a fast passage of her terrible law.

    > This approach in no way inhibits the many acts of charity conducted daily by Houstonians.

    Why don’t we let the people who are being inhibited speak for themselves instead of telling them how they feel? Perhaps the Mayor doesn’t realize that even the possibility of a $2,000 fine and having to go to court is enough to inhibit folks, and if so, she is out of touch with the citizens of her city.

  11. Nick Cooper says:

    Response to Weinmann:

    > There has been a huge public misinformation campaign on the issue.

    Yes, you have been misinforming the public. Please stop!

    > It is not illegal to feel the homeless – it is illegal, however, to utilize private property without permission to distribute food.

    You dropped off the “public property” part and left in the “private.” Is that part of your misinformation campaign that you were referring to?

    > We heard from kids who felt this issue, though they have never done meaningful charity work before, and still have not done any today, would be a good outlet for their frustrations toward life. Fine. What’s amazing is that the focus of the debate centers around narcissism and posturing and not providing a valuable tool for the homeless.

    I see the kids who spoke to City Council volunteering every week. Where are you getting the idea that they had never and still never volunteer?

    > However, the debate does not focus on the actual homeless – it’s posturing and a bloated sense of self-importance.

    Did you listen to the homeless who came to City Council to speak on this matter? Did you notice they were all against this law? Would you say that the homeless themselves are less focused on the “actual homeless” than you are?

  12. Ross says:

    Nick, why do you think feeding the feral is more important than the rest of us not having to deal with the aftermath? And, why should taxpayers foot the bill to clean up the mess you create with your random feedings?

  13. Nick Cooper says:

    Ross,
    The city and the management districts long been unwilling to put in adequate trash receptacles and public toilets near homeless encampments. Instead, it passed a law that does not effectively address trash. Homeless people, like other humans, create trash and excrement. The Mayor has provided no reports about how much it costs to feed and clean up after homeless in shelters. I am not arguing that trash left by the homeless doesn’t cost the taxpayers a cent, but the cost to taxpayers for cleaning up trash that homeless people leave out after receiving donations is significantly lower than any other option anyone has mentioned. Cutting off the healthy food provided by volunteers would not cause the homeless to go become more gainfully employed. I did extensive interviews with the homeless on this topic. They would turn to shoplifting (which incurs significant costs to stores and law enforcement), pan handling (which cna create a nuisance for residents, and in which case whatever they buy to eat still creates trash), and to hoarding food / digging in dumpsters (both of which cause food poisoning, and medical bills). Not mentioned in the interviews was the homeless on homeless violence over food has been in the news recently and bears significant costs. Even feeding more homeless in shelters has a cost, in fact quite a high cost. Downtown business owners and residents concerned about trash have good reason to want a change. Unfortunately, not only does this new law not provide this change, it would create even worse conditions for them and their families.

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