How Wonky Homelessness Consultants Helped Ban Food-Sharing in 22 Cities

In May, a Florida couple made national headlines when they were fined hundreds of dollars and threatened with prison for feeding homeless people. For over a year, Chico and Debbie Jimenez, had been feeding more than 100 homeless people every Wednesday at Manatee Island Park in Daytona Beach.

The police officers who ticketed the couple cited a local law in which a permit is required to share food with homeless people on public property. Daytona Beach authorities have since dropped all charges and fines, but the couple said they would face jail time if they hosted the gathering again without a permit.

“The worst thing is, these are people we have grown to love, they've become like family to us, and now we’re not allowed to go down and do that anymore,” Debbie Jimenez told NBC. “It's just heartbreaking. I have cried and cried and cried.” 

The Jimenez’s story is not unique. Food-sharing with the homeless has been criminalized across the country and is spreading. In its recent report, the National Coalition for the Homeless found that since January 2013 alone, food-sharing laws have been adopted in 21 cities. This past Tuesday, Fort Lauderdale, FL, passed the latest of these restrictions, making it city number 22. About 10 other cities are in the process of placing restrictions on food-sharing. This is a 47 percent increase since the coalition’s last report in 2010.

The coalition says this growing wave of restrictions is rooted in falsehoods about homelessness peddled by city advisers. It writes, "Such myths are detrimental to the lives of many homeless in individuals. These misguided notions from consultants and high-ranking officials have led to the increasing number of cities putting restrictions and bans on food-sharing across the country."

Myths About Homelessness

One of these myths is that sharing food with homeless people enables homelessness. The coalition quoted Robert Marbut, a homelessness consultant, who has traveled to more than 60 communities, warning, “If you feed people in parks, or on a street, or drive your car, all you’re doing is growing homelessness.”

Marbut suggests that homeless people should only be fed in places that provide them other services that could put them on a path out of homelessness. The coalition, however, writes that many homeless people don’t have access to meals each day at these facilities.

“I know of no city in the country in which a low-income person could eat three meals a day, seven days a week at an indoor location,” said Michael Stoops, editor of the new report. “And that’s why food-sharing programs are really important to narrow the gap.”

The next myth is the mistaken belief that there are more than enough existing meal programs. In the report, David Takumi, spokesman for the Seattle Human Services Department, was quoted saying, “We certainly appreciate… their work, but this has been the case where there are a lot of meals served at one time to the same population on the same day. It creates a possible food waste issue, garbage, and in that case a rodent issue.”

In reality, the coalition says these programs “are overwhelmed and often under-resourced.” They point to last November’s six percent cut in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, as well as a 2013 U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Hunger and Homelessness Survey, which found a surge of people in need. It found that 83 percent of cities surveyed reported an increase in the number of emergency food requests from the previous year. And 66 percent of emergency kitchens had to turn people away due to lack of resources.

Perhaps the cruelest myths is that by not feeding homeless people, they will disappear—which apparently is a desired outcome for some. The report quotes two city leaders who say homeless people shouldn’t be fed at all. One is a police captain in Cincinnati, OH, who stated, “If you want the bears to go away, don’t feed the bears.”

By depicting homeless people as unwanted animals, the statement practically rationalizes their mistreatment. In reality, homeless people are victims of cities’ failure to address real needs like affordable housing, job creation and living wages.

“The motivation behind all this is to get rid of homeless people and to make them less visible,” Stoops said. He continued:

"I think the real consultants should be people currently experiencing homelessness.… People who do studies or taskforces and come up with recommendations they’re doing it because they want to be the new kid on the block. And consultants are getting paid. Cities are paying them money to study the problem and come up with recommendations. Homelessness has been studied to death. We know what causes homelessness. We know the solutions. People sharing food with homeless people should be thanked profusely. Trying to shut down food-sharing programs is immoral and counterproductive."

How Cities Restrict Food-Sharing

These myths have led to a trend of restrictions on food-sharing programs, which happen three common ways: by requiring programs to obtain a permit, requiring them to comply with food-safety regulations, and by community actions that drive out the programs.

While obtaining a permit may seem easy, there are a lot of obstacles. For one, permits aren’t guaranteed if requested. In Shawnee, OK, the city has stopped giving permits to food-sharing programs.

They can also be extremely costly. In Raleigh, NC, a permit to distribute food in the park costs $800 a day. In Sacramento, CA, a proposed legislation has a permit costing up to $1,250, and groups are limited to four permits per year.

Not obtaining a permit can be pricey, too. In Houston, TX, groups that do not have city permission to feed homeless people can be fined up to $2,000. In Daytona Beach, FL, Chico, CA, Olympia, WA, and Myrtle Beach, SC, those without permits could face jail time. That's the reason the Jimenez family in Daytona Beach had to stop.

In addition to requiring permits, some cities are also requiring programs to adhere to food-safety regulations. In Salt Lake City, UT, food-sharing programs are required to have a food handler’s permit. While some city officials claim the standard is well intentioned, the coalition quoted a member of the ACLU saying, “If food safety really was an issue, then what about things like family reunions in parks.”

Restrictions on food-sharing programs sometimes come from the bottom up, with community members pressuring groups to end their services or the city to regulate it. Residents have complained about homeless people near their property, public urination or an increase in trash.

The coalition quoted one Los Angeles resident who said, “If you give out free food on the street with no other services to deal with the collateral damage, you get hundreds of people beginning to squat. They are living in my bushes and they are living in my next-door neighbor’s crawl space. We have a neighborhood which now seems like a mental ward.”

While legislation in Los Angeles has been proposed to ban food-sharing programs, community pressure has already been effective in restricting the programs in five other cities, including Seattle, WA.

Defending the Right to Food

The National Coalition for the Homeless concludes its report by explaining possible avenues for fighting back against food-sharing restrictions. They have already seen success in Albuquerque, NM, where three people filed a civil lawsuit against the city, claiming that their First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated because feeding homeless people was part of their religious expression. They won more than $100,000 in a settlement.

In St. Augustine, FL, city officials worked with food-sharing groups to secure a location in the downtown area to serve homeless people.

“Every city should walk a mile in the shoes of a homeless person and find out how difficult it is to get a meal three times a day, seven days a week that are nutritious,” Michael Stoops said, adding that they should create more indoor meal programs in convenient, downtown areas of cities. “If a city did that, there would be fewer people having to wait in the parks relying on Good Samaritans. And then for those still in the parks, we still have a moral obligation to share food with them.”

After a decade, the United States, in 2009, finally joined the rest of the United Nations in declaring a Right to Food. The coalition states, “Laws and restrictions [of food-sharing] violate that right.”

“We are looking at the strategies of litigation, at organizing boycotts, as a way to keep these ordinances from being enforced,” Stoops said. “We are not going to give up.” 

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