Houston charities complain: New law bans feeding the homeless without government permission

Jason Howerton Contributor
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Charitable organizations and human rights activists in Houston hope to put an initiative on the November ballot that would reverse a controversial new ordinance which makes it a crime to feed the homeless, or otherwise give food away, without special permission.

On April 4 the Houston City Council passed the law, ruling that feeding the hungry requires the permission of property owners wherever it occurs — including the City of Houston, if the feeding happens on public property.

Council members passed the law by a a 11-6 vote; the regulations are set to take effect in July, according to Mayor Annise Parker’s office.

Amber Rodriguez, executive director of Noah’s Kitchen in Houston, told The Daily Caller that the new ordinance will shut her organization down if it is upheld. A single fine from the city, she said, could hurt the charity significantly.

The maximum penalty for violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor charge accompanied by a $500 fine. The original proposal, submitted by Mayor Parker, included fines as high as $2,000.

Rodriguez said a $500 fine would keep Noah’s Kitchen from providing roughly 750 meals to individuals who need them.

Initially, the mayor also wanted “all charitable food to be prepared in city-certified kitchens, at least one person from each feeding organization take a food safety class and that everyone who wants to feed the homeless register with the city,” according to the Houston Chronicle. Those requirements were eventually struck from the final version, and registration was made voluntary.

The final seven-page law authorizes the city’s health department to approve “Recognized Charitable Food Service Providers” and fast-tracks its final implementation because of what the bill’s authors call a “public emergency.”

Rodriguez, however, is unimpressed. “I never knew there would be so much red tape to cut through just to do what we all should be doing for each other,” she told TheDC. “This will shut us down.”

She added that she does not plan to comply with ordinance, saying that she is unwilling to subject her employees and volunteers to fines and intimidation from the city.

“I have never been one to break the law,” she explained. “But if I see people who need food, I am going to feed them.”

Under the new ordinance, she added, she would have to call and get the city’s permission before feeding a group of homeless people who were starving under a bridge. By the time permission was given, she explained, they could easily be gone as the homeless are usually always on the go.

With the support of the mayor and a City Council majority, Houston plans to enforce the new law like any other city ordinance, the Mayor’s office said in a statement to TheDC.

“This [ordinance] recognizes the importance of charitable behavior while still providing protection for owners who don’t want that charity occurring on their properties,” the statement read.

The statement said the city also has concerns about “food being wasted,” trash left behind and “health and safety issues that can arise due to improperly prepared food.”

The decision has created conflict among local politicians. Councilwoman Helena Brown, who voted against the ordinance, has been a vocal opponent of the law and claims the city will “be criminalizing charity.”

“This ordinance will inhibit instead of promote charitable food sharing. The only thing it will promote is fear,” Brown told the Chronicle. “This is not a feeding ordinance. This is a control ordinance, taking away our freedoms. It’s ludicrous. Government needs to stay out. Government will slowly creep into our freedoms like lulling the cattle to slaughter.”

Houston isn’t the first city to implement restrictions on feeding the homeless. In March, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter unveiled a plan to ban outdoor feeding of the homeless in certain areas of the city.

In Orlando, a dozen activists were arrested for feeding groups of homeless people in a city park in violation of a city ordinance that limits permits for food distribution in parks. Las Vegas passed a similar law in 2006, making it illegal to feed the homeless in parks.

Last month, the administration of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg enforced new regulations that blocked food donations going to government-run facilities serving the homeless in the city. The city government cited concerns that donated food was not nutritious enough.

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