How Should We Make Sure That Homeless People Don’t Go Hungry?

This is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, an annual event scheduled to take advantage of the fact that we’re thinking about what we’re thankful for — and about food.

I’m going to take advantage of it here by pondering an issue that the National Coalition for the Homeless, which cosponsors the week, raises in its latest report on the “criminalization of food sharing.”

“Food sharing” refers to distributing food to homeless people, usually outdoors. A growing number of local laws “criminalize” it, NCH says, by imposing restrictions of several major sorts. They’re based on “unjust stereotypes and biases that victimize people experiencing homelessness,” it contends.

Perhaps or perhaps not, as I’ll attempt to show further on. But first a look at the number and types of restrictions NCH finds so objectionable.

Cities That Restrict Food Sharing

NCH doesn’t actually tell us how many cities restrict food sharing. It instead identifies 17 that adopted such restrictions in the last year and a half and lists 12 more that it found too late to fold into the report. Fort Lauderdale recently joined them — and promptly became notorious for acting against the 90-year-old head of a street ministry.

Community pressures “have pushed food-sharing out of populated areas,” e.g., public spaces, in at least four other cities, NCH says. So that makes a minimum of 34 cities that, in its view, have recently engaged in new hostile acts against food sharing.

Types of Food-Sharing Restrictions

NCH identifies two major types of food-sharing restrictions, not counting community pressures that programs have felt constrained to respond to.

The first type limits uses of public property, mostly by requiring permits. Some of them are dauntingly costly for individuals and groups who want to share food on a regular basis. Lots of red tape too.

The second type requires food sharers to comply with food safety regulations, e.g., to get a food handler’s certification or to prepare hot meals only in approved locations (presumably those that have passed some sort of inspection).

Arguments Against Food-Sharing Restrictions

NCH and the volunteers it quotes clearly believe that anyone should be able to feed homeless people pretty much wherever and whenever they choose. After all, homeless people need to eat. And a free meal served where they tend to congregate is a whole lot safer and healthier than dumpster diving.

Some faith-based organizations view food-sharing restrictions as a violation of their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religious duty to feed the hungry. Two courts have agreed.

Professor Baylen Linnekin, who’s also executive director of the libertarian Keep Food Legal Foundation, argues that food-sharing restrictions are discriminatory, as well as unconstitutional on other grounds because they apply only to sharing food with people who don’t sleep with a roof over their heads.

Arguments for (Some) Food-Sharing Restrictions

Cities regulate uses of public spaces for all sorts of reasons — safety, equal access, sanitation, etc. It’s not clear why food-sharing programs should get a free pass when the result can be blocked sidewalks or a park that’s littered with garbage, which serves as a feeding program of sorts for rats.

Property use rules can, of course, be targeted specifically to deter food sharing. The new Fort Lauderdale ordinance, for example, requires outdoor feeding programs to provide portable toilets and hand-washing stations. But it seems a stretch to label every new rule that affects a food-sharing program as an effort to criminalize its activities.

Ditto for requiring programs that feed homeless people to observe basic food safety precautions. Mark Horvath, the genius behind Invisible People and a formerly homeless person, argues that homeless people should have the same assurance of food that’s “healthy and inspected” as the rest of us do.

Beyond this, Horvath believes that feeding homeless people on the streets or in a park can discourage them from going to a nonprofit that will not only feed them, but provide or connect them to other services — and thus end their homelessness. He’s not the only one.

NCH calls the notion that food sharing enables homeless people to remain homeless a myth. They’re homeless, it says, for reasons that have nothing to do with choice, e.g., mental health problems, physical disabilities, lack of affordable housing and/or job opportunities.

But they’re not going to get help with any of these from an outdoor food-sharing program that’s not coordinated with anything else.

Beyond Food Sharing

Horvath suggests that those of us who want homeless people to have enough to eat should donate our time and/or money to a local service provider, though he’s willing to allow that we can feed people in a park so long as we’re also doing something to get them out of it — not, of course, by advocating for local laws that “criminalize” their being there.

NCH itself recognizes that the sort of food-sharing programs it believes local authorities are unjustly targeting don’t solve the problems of hunger and homelessness — or even hunger among homeless people.

It recommends outreach and caseworker support to help homeless people enroll in federal nutrition programs like SNAP (the food stamp program). It recommends more federal funding for them, as well as for food sharing and for organizations that provide food for homeless people in other ways (lots of luck!).

It also recommends changes in federal law to eliminate barriers to SNAP participation, i.e., work requirements, the lifetime bans some states still impose on people who’ve been convicted of drug-related felonies (lots of luck, again).

Setting aside the high improbability of friendlier federal nutrition policies, an approach that coordinates feeding with other forms of help does seem preferable to free-standing, outdoor food-sharing programs.

Yet not all homeless people want to go someplace where they can eat indoors, as NCH Director of Community Organizing Michael Stoops says. Nor apparently do they all respond to caseworkers who go to where they are.

DC Central Kitchen, whose mobile breakfast program NCH approvingly cited in its previous food-sharing report, says it’s piloting something different because “the vast majority of our clients were content to receive a free daily meal without engaging in any meaningful way with our outreach workers.”

But it hopes some other nonprofit will fill the gap. Better fed than dead of malnutrition, one might say — or than driven to desperate acts.

Hard, I think, to decide where we who worry about both hunger and homelessness should net out.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, I discovered another significant voice in the food-sharing debate. It’s a fierce response by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to an NPR interview with a prominent consultant who opposes outdoor feeding programs. The coalition focuses specifically on church groups, but most of the issues it raises are more generally applicable.

 

 

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