Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
By making it a crime to feed the homeless, cities just hide the problem—and punish both those making an immediate impact and those who have already borne the brunt of a broken system.
This story is part of a CityLab series launching this month on the state of homelessness policy in American cities.
Three times now, Arnold Abbott has been cited by the city of Fort Lauderdale for feeding people experiencing homelessness. Three times now, the city of Fort Lauderdale has wound up with egg on its face.
Abbott, 90, is the now-notorious advocate director of the Maureen A. Abbott Love Thy Neighbor Fund, Inc., and Culinary Skills Training Program, a nonprofit organization devoted to feeding and training the homeless. A World War II veteran, he typically sets up his operation twice a week, feeding dozens of people in public places such as Stranahan Park, which is just two blocks from City Hall.
Three times this month, Abbott has run afoul of a new ordinance that Fort Lauderdale officials say is designed to protect the homeless from food-borne illnesses. But nobody experiencing homelessness has ever been made sick by eating food shared by charitable organizations—in Fort Lauderdale or anywhere else, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Abbott has his work cut out for him. He now faces 60 days in jail and hundreds of dollars in fines. While national media attention has earned support for his cause, local officials and media appear unmoved. Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel published one op-ed asking what Abbott's dead wife (for whom his charity is named) would think of his grandstanding and an editorial that says that Abbott "now exudes a sense of entitlement."
A Broward County court will settle the matter in Fort Lauderdale. Yet the standoff between advocates and the city is just one of many similar conflicts taking place around the nation. While few cities boast an advocate as visible as Abbott, many have enacted or proposed regulations designed to relocate (and thus hide from public view) people experiencing homelessness.
"These laws are all essentially coming from the same place, the notion that by making it difficult for homeless folks to either sleep out of doors. or ask for help through panhandling, or in this case have access to food, the problem will simply go away," says Jerry Jones, executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "They’re essentially trying to eliminate the food supply."
That's likely what Cincinnati Police Department Captain Paul F. Broxterman meant when he said, late in 2013, "If you want the bears to go away, don't feed the bears." Or what Key West Commissioner Tony Yaniz had in mind when he said earlier this year that a soup kitchen should dial back its services: "What we've got to do is quit making it cozy."
All told, some 22 cities have passed ordinances restricting food-sharing since January 2013. According to Jones, these food-sharing restrictions come in three stripes: Ordinances that restrict the use of property; acts that tighten food-safety regulations; and community actions that pressure a food-sharing organization to relocate.
These new regulations are arriving at a time of rising homelessness. According to a National Coalition for the Homeless report on food-sharing, 89 percent of cities surveyed (through the U.S. Conference of Mayors) saw an increase in emergency food requests in 2013. The majority of cities surveyed (78 percent) were forced to limit the number of monthly visits an individual could make to the food pantry, while 66 percent of cities had to turn people away. Some 91 percent of cities reported an increase in the number of people asking for food for the first time.
Fort Lauderdale is one of 13 cities that has passed an ordinance that restricts food-sharing through new property restrictions. Fort Lauderdale's act, which was passed by the city in October, requires that any organization feeding the homeless must also provide restroom facilities—a tall order for an outdoor volunteer organization. The ordinance further restricts food-sharing at any site that is within 500 feet of a residential property, and requires specific hand-washing equipment be present on site wherever food is shared.
(This is only the most recent restriction that Fort Lauderdale has passed: This year, the City Commission also passed laws prohibiting the homeless from panhandling at busy intersections, sleeping on public benches, or keeping their belongings on public property.)
Other cities that have curbed food-sharing through property-use restrictions include Costa Mesa in California (which simply demolished a park picnic-shelter area frequented by the homeless) and Houston (whose April ordinance requires that anyone feeding the homeless receive permission from the property owner, including the city in the case of public parks). Raleigh passed a law requiring volunteers and organizations to obtain pricey permits to share food in public places, but relented relented on enforcing it.
"Bear in mind, we’re not asking the city to provide resources to feed homeless folks," Jones says. "We’re simply telling them they shouldn’t prevent church groups and nonprofits for doing so. And in fact, they should thank them for doing so."
Four cities passed food-safety restrictions that affect feeding people experiencing homelessness, requiring food-handling permits or permission for preparing hot meals in certain locations. "In St. Louis, it's completely legal to tailgate or barbecue without a permit," reads one news report on an ordinance that requires charitable organizations or volunteers to purchase a permit for distributing hot meals. "Not so with feeding the homeless."
In another five cities, the communities themselves led the way, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless report. The owner of a restaurant in Lafayette, Indiana, who gave away meals during lunch on Thursday was pressured to stop by persistent complaints from another local business. When Dauphin County sided with workers against a ministry operating in downtown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the ministry was forced to relocate its food-sharing operations to a place further from downtown and more difficult for many to reach.
None of these laws has accomplished the ostensible goal of eliminating homelessness. Critics say that the justification for these ordinances, that food-sharing enables dependency or unsafe conditions, is flawed and misleading. The only solution to the problem—which in many of these cities and communities is the visibility of homelessness—is to provide subsidized housing and services for people experiencing homelessness and prioritize affordable housing to prevent more homelessness.
"The reality is there are lots of folks living on the streets with nowhere to go, and whether we pass mean-spirited laws or not, this is a national crisis," Jones says. "It’s not going away until we create some housing and provide some services for folks."