Homelessness is hardly an invisible problem in the United States, but some cities wish that it were — and as a result, are moving to ban feeding the homeless.
Thirty-three cities have already implemented these policies according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, and at least four municipalities — Daytona Beach, Florida; Raleigh, N.C.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Birmingham, Alabama — have recently fined, removed, or threatened prison time against individuals and private groups that have fed the homeless.
Director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, Michael Stoops, said that he wished cities would stop trying to ban the charitable acts:
“Homeless people are visible in downtown America. And cities think by cutting off the food source it will make the homeless go away. It doesn’t, of course,” Stoops said, “We want to get cities to quit doing this. We support the right of all people to share food.”
NBC News recently reported on one such story, that of Debbie and Chico Jimenez, who were fined $2,000 by the police because they were feeding the homeless weekly in Daytona Beach Park. The couple and four others working with them refused to pay the ticket and the ticket itself was eventually dismissed by the police, but it highlights the growing problem of cities criminalizing the homeless and punishing those who would help them. Daytona Beach and the case of the Jimenezes displays a clear cut, black-and-white conflict:
Daytona Beach offers a clear view of this muddy issue – two sides, two distinct arguments. Jimenez asserts citizens have the authority, if not an obligation, to provide an occasional, nutritious meal to folks in need, and that everyone should share the parks. Daytona Beach leaders argue that the couple’s work worsens homelessness by coaxing impoverished people away from centralized, city-run programs, and they complain that during the couple’s feedings some homeless people mistreated the park and frightened other patrons.
The issue is more complicated than “let the government do it and run out the private groups” or “let private groups do it because it’s not the government’s responsibility.” The best approach, as determined by Robert Marbut, seems to be bridged by combining both approaches.
In January, Volusia County (home of Daytona Beach) contracted with Robert Marbut, a national homeless consultant, to assess that city’s problems and suggest solutions – as he’s done in some 60 other towns, including St. Petersburg, Fla., Fresno, Calif., and Fort Smith, Ark. He bills each community about $5,900 for his analysis and ideas, he said.
Marbut advised the Volusia County Council that centralized, 24/7 programs that treat the three root causes of homelessness – a lack of jobs, mental illnesses and chronic substance abuse – have been shown to reduce local homeless populations by 80 percent.
But Marbut does not favor any ordinances that criminalize helping the homelesses, he said. (Daytona Beach passed its anti-feeding law before the Jimenezes were fined).
“I prefer changing a community’s culture through a dialogue,” said Marbut, who is based in San Antonio, Texas. “You’re never going to get anywhere arresting priests, pastors and imams in the street.”
But he also cringes at the notion of lone ministries independently launching food-sharing programs without coordinating with other churches or with local charity agencies, he said.
“Give me a name of one person who got a job because they were fed. Feeding alone, or giving out clothing or camping equipment, does not address the core issues of being homeless,” Marbut said. “You don’t graduate from the street because you ate a Big Mac tonight.”
Some areas are attempting to combine both approaches to get the best part of both worlds; sensible regulation and independent public service:
In the Bay Area city of Hayward, Calif., officials enacted a homeless-feeding ordinance in February that carries some of those gentle nuances – a nod that this is hardly a black-and-white problem.The proper government response is needed, not blanket bans on private actions. Once again, smart government, not small government, is the key to success here. A recent study showed that some cities could save over $350 million if they housed homeless and offered other services to help get them off the street. Private groups can’t manage free-housing without some sort of subsidization from the government, and it’s easier to cut out the middle man and let cities manage the housing themselves with federal, state, and local money. At the same time, muscling out private groups and individuals who want to help isn’t solving the problem — it’s costing the municipality that much more in paper work for tickets that will likely be dismissed.
People or groups seeking to feed the homeless in Hayward first must obtain a health department permit to show their fare is safely prepared and served. After that, they can apply for a food-sharing permit. But those individuals still are restricted as to the number of times in a week or a month that they can provide free food at the same location on a public property.