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Federal lawsuit filed over homeless feeding ordinance

I’m kind of surprised that this hadn’t been filed before now.

On a recent evening in April, a few dozen people experiencing homelessness lined up outside Central Library in downtown Houston for a free — and illegal — meal of vegetarian chili, macaroni, rice and fruit salad. Volunteers with Food Not Bombs, an international organization with hundreds of local chapters, often serve free dinner here, violating a local ordinance against publicly feeding groups of people without city permission.

Houston’s so-called charitable-feeding ordinance was enacted in 2012 and allows groups and individuals to feed up to five homeless people, no strings attached. To feed more, though, you must register with the city — or face fines up to $2,000 and a misdemeanor charge for violating the Houston Code of Ordinances. Additionally, would-be do-gooders have to take a food handling training class; provide the proposed schedule, time and location of the ad-hoc soup kitchen; detail the food being served; and fill out an online form to receive permission from the city to give food in public.

On Monday, activists filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinance on First Amendment grounds. Food Not Bombs and three of its members are plaintiffs in the suit, filed against the City of Houston in the U.S. Southern District of Texas. The lawsuit accuses the city of infringing on freedom of speech and religious liberties of the anti-war, food-sharing activists. It asks Houston to overthrow the ban and seeks unspecified monetary damages.

The ordinance infringes on “freedom of association” and “political organizing” and is “unconstitutionally vague,” the lawsuit argues. It cites at least 19 pro-food-sharing verses from the Bible. Randall Kallinen, who has filed numerous civil rights lawsuits in Houston, is representing the activists. In interviews with the Observer, he described the ordinance as “totally ridiculous” and part of an effort to “get the homeless out of town.”

While the lawsuit adds to pressure against Houston, the effort to overturn the city’s ban is not new. A parallel lawsuit also involving Kallinen has been floundering in state district court since 2017, and over 75,000 people have signed an online petition calling for an end to the “cruel” ordinance.

See here for some more on the state court lawsuit. A copy of this lawsuit is embedded in the story, and it’s something else. I like to make I Am Not A Lawyer jokes, but I can read legal briefs and motions and generally understand what they’re getting at. This one is in a way a lot easier to read because there’s almost no legal language in it. I mean, there’s a page quoting from the Food Not Bombs website. There’s more than two pages quoting bible verses, and three pages listing organizations that they say oppose the law. The legal arguments section does cite a couple of court cases, but it never quotes anything from the cited decisions, which leaves one to wonder just how those decisions apply to the case at hand.

Most of the arguments they make themselves have to do with the vagueness of the term “those in need” from the ordinance’s definition of “charitable food service”, which is “providing food without charge, payment or other compensation to benefit those in need at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food.” I mean, I was a math major and I Am Not A Lawyer, but that seems pretty straightforward to me. Their point seems to be that an organization that was handing out food (at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food) to random passersby would not be in violation of the law. Maybe that could work as a theoretical construct, but I have a hard time imagining it happening in real life.

The writer of this story is clearly sympathetic to the plaintiffs. I get that, but even the lightest critical analysis of the lawsuit shows the problems with it. I’m not sure how the reader is served by that omission. We’ll see what the court makes of this, but color me skeptical.

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2 Comments

  1. Paul Kubosh says:

    It was filed before we filled one but had to dismiss it.

  2. Yes, there was a state lawsuit, which had other issues. I was surprised that a federal lawsuit hadn’t been filed before now.