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Food Not Bombs

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.

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.