Prohibitions on Sharing Food with People Experiencing Homelessness.
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VII. City Summaries
In 2003, the City of Atlanta completed the implementation of its homeless "service provider system." As part of the system, the City designated eight organizations that will oversee the distribution of food to all homeless people in Atlanta. Any person wishing to provide food to homeless persons in Atlanta must now do so through one of these eight organizations. To ensure that the citizens of Atlanta use the system, the Mayor instructed the Chief of Police to begin enforcing existing Fulton County health ordinances. These ordinances prohibit serving food to the public without a permit. Any person or group who is found in violation of the ordinances will be asked to stop serving food and can be fined. This action is an attempt to use the existing health codes to restrict food sharing as part of efforts to “clean up the city.”
The City of Baltimore's health code includes an ordinance that requires every food service facility to acquire a food license regardless of whether the food is provided for a fee or at no cost. The City Health Department also requires all facilities to have access to hot and cold running water in food preparation areas. In 2005, a city health worker used these requirements to stop a group of Loyola College students from sharing food with homeless people in a location near City Hall. The students had been volunteering as part of a college-sponsored service program. Following the warning from the Health Department, the school temporarily suspended the program. Eventually, the new city Health Commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, stepped in and an agreement was reached: the students could continue to distribute food as long as they did so at one of Baltimore's designated outreach sites where additional services were available.
In May 2007, a group that had been sharing food with homeless persons at a downtown Chattanooga park for seven years was told to move their operations to a new location. The group objected to the move stating that the new location was inconvenient and that the facilities were inadequate. The city also rescinded the group’s park permit required by city law for any gathering in a public park. Without the permit, any attempts to continue operations at the original location would be illegal. The city’s actions are considered particularly troubling since the mayor of Chattanooga has cultivated a reputation for being an advocate for homeless persons and often notes that his father was homeless for a time.
Cincinnati ordinances require a park permit for gatherings of 50 or more people. Additionally, the Cincinnati Park Board has established a policy of requiring any group wishing to undertake “outreach ministries” in a city park to obtain a special use permit. According to Georgine Getty of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, the Park Board, by refusing to issue the required permit, has severely limited food sharing in a key city park directly across from Cincinnati’s largest shelter. This action has forced groups to move their food sharing efforts to less convenient shelter spaces.
In 2006, the city of Dallas began enforcing new ordinances that severely restrict the distribution of food to homeless persons. Citing food safety concerns and problems with littering, the ordinances state that food can only be distributed at certain sites chosen by the city. In effect, these restrictions limit groups to sharing food in only one location in the city. Some groups that share food find the location restrictions interfere with their ability to reach out to unsheltered homeless individuals. Even though the city has claimed it is interested in ensuring the safety of food served to homeless people, the one location where groups are allowed to serve food is a highly unsanitary location. Some charitable organizations in Dallas have continued to operate in spite of the new ordinances. The city has issued warnings to at least two of these groups at separate times to cease operations and has threatened them with fines if the violations continue. Penalties for violating the ordinance include a fine of up to $2,000 and/or jail time for up to six months. In January 2007, NLCHP and Howrey, a law firm working in a pro bono capacity, filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of these two organizations challenging these new ordinances. The case is pending.
In 2006, groups that had been sharing food with homeless persons in a downtown Denver park were told to move their operations out of the downtown area. Denver ordinances require a permit for any scheduled event in a city park involving more than 25 people. To obtain a permit, a group may have to provide both proof of liability insurance and a security deposit. Even if a group satisfies these permit requirements, according to city officials, mass feedings are not among the accepted activities for city parks. In November 2006, the city made a temporary agreement with local groups that allowed food sharing activities to continue for 90 days while relocation options were discussed. The city is currently preparing to launch a public awareness campaign to match those who want to serve food with agencies where people congregate, including local day shelters and night shelters. Individuals or groups that want to share food will contact designated outreach workers and the outreach workers will direct these inquiries to appropriate service providers. The Mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, said that he used to bring food to a homeless man living near him, but then he "began to realize the amount of harm that just giving food or money to homeless people does." While the Mayor has done some positive things for the homeless population, this perspective shapes much of his downtown policies.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
As of August 2007, the group Food Not Bombs (FNB), continues a weekly food sharing program that has been operating for over a year in a Fort Lauderdale park. According to FNB, in July 2007, the Fort Lauderdale police threatened to shut down the program and to arrest anyone who attempted to continue the program. Fort Lauderdale Park Regulations prohibit using any city park for “social service purposes” without written authorization from the city. The regulations define social services as providing “food, clothing, shelter or medical care to persons in order to meet their physical needs.” In spite of the police order, the group subsequently returned and operated the food sharing program without incident. The police later stated that no threats of arrest were made to the group and that the group would not be arrested for sharing food in the park.
Fort Myers, Florida
In response to public outcry, Fort Myers officials recently abandoned plans to limit food sharing with homeless persons in city parks. The proposed ordinance would have prohibited the distribution of food in city parks to groups of ten or more people without a permit and would have limited groups to only two approved gatherings per year. NLCHP and NCH both communicated with the city attorney’s office and testified before the City Council along with local providers and advocates to oppose the proposed ordinance. Such negative public response and a subsequent initiative by a City Council member and local service providers to find an alternative solution led the City Council to reject the proposed ordinance and promise to work with homeless service providers to achieve better solutions.
In 2003, the city manager of Gainesville made distribution of food in front of City Hall illegal if not sponsored by the city. Gainesville has also enacted an ordinance that requires any “food distribution center for the needy” to obtain a permit. These centers are limited both in where they can be located and how many meals they can serve, though the city has shown some flexibility in accommodating groups regarding the number of meals served. One specific prohibition bans food sharing centers anywhere near the University of Florida campus. In September 2007, Gainesville city commissioners approved a plan to set up a one-stop homeless center that will be 33 blocks north of the downtown area. Two homeless service providers tentatively agreed to move their food programs from the downtown area to the new one-stop homeless center. On a more positive note, another provider of meals to homeless individuals, Fire of God Ministries, has been able to continue its food program and other services at its facility as a result of the settlement of its lawsuit against the city.
Hempstead, New York
In early 2007, members of the group Food Not Bombs (FNB) reported being approached by Hempstead police and asked to stop distributing food to homeless people in Hempstead or face possible arrest. Hempstead ordinances prohibit holding meetings of any kind in city parks without authorization from city officials. Since those initial incidents, the Hempstead police have not interfered with food sharing activities as long as FNB stays off Metropolitan Transit Authority property adjacent to the food sharing site.
In 2004, the Jacksonville City Council passed an ordinance that prohibited the distribution of food on private or public property without a proper city permit. Religious groups objected to the ordinance and filed a lawsuit claiming that it violated their First Amendment rights. In May 2007, an apparent settlement was reached under which the city would amend the ordinance to allow religiously motivated sharing of food without a permit. However, by the end of July, the two parties still had not agreed on appropriate language. The city insists it is working on an amendment that will pass constitutional muster. Meanwhile, the religious groups have threatened to re-instate their lawsuit.
Las Vegas, Nevada
On July 19, 2006, the Las Vegas City Council voted to approve an amendment to an existing ordinance that bans “the providing of food or meals to the indigent for free or for a nominal fee” in the city parks. The ordinance defines an indigent person as someone who a reasonable person would believe to be entitled to receive public assistance. A separate Las Vegas ordinance requires a park permit for gatherings of 25 or more in a city park. A lawsuit in opposition to these ordinances was filed in federal court. NLCHP, NCH, and a number of other homeless advocacy groups filed an amicus brief in the case to oppose restrictions on sharing food with indigent individuals. In January 2007, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing Las Vegas from enforcing its “sharing food with the indigent” ordinance. The court held that this ordinance was most likely unconstitutional because of its vague definition of “indigent” and because the city had not provided a rational reason for singling out indigent people as the only group with whom food could not be shared. In August 2007, the court made this injunction permanent, but in the same decision upheld the ordinance containing the park permit requirement.
Miami-Dade County, Florida
Miami-Dade County ordinances include a permit system that limits food distribution in certain areas of the city. Specifically, no food may be distributed on any public right-of-way, near any school, or in any city park or beach without a permit. While the ordinance seems geared towards vendors, it applies to those who offer goods or foods in any way.
With an estimated 8,000 homeless people, Orlando has one of the highest populations of homeless people in the state of Florida. In early 2006, the Orlando City Council passed an ordinance that prohibits sharing food with more than 25 people in city parks without a permit and limits permitted groups to doing so only two times a year. In October of 2006, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance. While litigation continued, in April 2007, a member of Food Not Bombs was arrested for distributing food in violation of the anti-feeding ordinance and was found not-guilty in October 2007. In an article in Street Roots, Montanez's attorney, Jacqueline Dowd, explains that food sharing restrictions are a new trend, "Instead of going after the homeless, they're going after people who serve the homeless." Most homeless advocates have spoken out against these ordinances, however some local homeless service provider groups insist that the “ordinance is not against homeless people” and that “homeless people do have a place to eat” in Orlando.
Pinellas Park, Florida
A Pinellas Park soup kitchen has been involved in an ongoing dispute with the city over an ordinance that limits food sharing through parking lot capacity requirements. The ordinance requires any facility to have adequate off-street parking based on the seating capacity of the facility. These requirements apply regardless of the type of individuals being seated or the type of facility. In January 2007, a tentative agreement was reached under which the soup kitchen would be able to continue distributing food but would do so at a city approved location rather than at the shelter itself.
In August 2007, Portland Police asked a group sharing food with homeless people in a public park to stop its operation because the group did not have a permit. The food sharing events had been taking place in the city park for a number of years. However, the police had requested in May 2007 that the group obtain the necessary permit to serve food at that location. In addition, due to the large amount of traffic in that particular park, the city does not grant more than a one-time permit for that location. Although Portland Parks and Recreation require groups sharing food to obtain a parks special use permit, several groups have been able to obtain permits and have continued their food sharing operations for a number of years.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco’s food establishment laws include a category called “itinerant restaurants.” Like all other food establishments, these entities must obtain a permit even if they are giving food away. In spite of these ordinances, Food Not Bombs continues to hold regular food sharing events in San Francisco parks.
Santa Monica, California
Santa Monica has taken numerous steps to address the sharing of food with homeless persons in the community. The city’s ordinances directly limit food sharing in two ways. First, in a law recently passed by the City Council, the city has prohibited leaving food or clothing in city parks as a means of donation. Second, the city has an ordinance that requires any group who intends to “feed the needy” to first obtain a permit. In order to meet constitutional requirements, the city has amended language in another ordinance that prohibited the distribution of food on city streets and sidewalks without a permit. The new language exempts noncommercial food distribution from the ordinance’s scope.
The city of Sarasota requires any group planning a gathering of 75 or more people in a park to obtain a permit. The law further states that the city manger can, at his or her discretion, move a planned gathering from a requested site to any other park in the city. In January 2006, the city refused to grant a permit to a group hoping to share food with homeless persons in a city park. The group had been using this park for years but the city insisted that it move its operations to a different park. The group complied with this request only to have their plans thwarted when the new park was closed for renovations. Eventually, the group was forced to acquire its own property to continue its food sharing program. Since acquiring this land, the city has not interfered with the group’s activities.
Tampa has a “standing policy” against sharing food with homeless persons in city parks. Tampa police have taken steps to stop individuals and groups who have attempted to distribute food in defiance of this policy. In 2004, police arrested Food Not Bombs (FNB) members for serving food in a downtown city park without a permit. However, due to the advocacy of two attorneys, Michael Maddux and Joseph Jackson, the city dropped the charges against the FNB members and agreed to cease enforcing the ordinance.
West Palm Beach, Florida
West Palm Beach has a law requiring a permit for any “special event” to be held on public property and the law defines the term “special event” very broadly. Additionally, the law requires permit applications to be filed from six weeks to six months in advance of the event depending on its type and size. In September 2007, West Palm Beach City Commissioners approved a ban on food sharing programs in several downtown city parks, despite public protests from city residents and providers. Local charity groups and legal organizations plan to take action on the basis of freedom of speech and assembly violations.
Following complaints from downtown businesses, Wilmington has been very direct in its opposition to sharing food with homeless persons. The city passed an ordinance that prohibits the sharing of food on city streets and sidewalks. The passage of this ordinance has forced groups to seek out private property on which to conduct their food sharing activities. These private property activities continue to be monitored by Wilmington police.
City of Atlanta Online, Homeless Service Providers Join City of Atlanta to Offer Better, Legal Alternatives to Feeding the Homeless in City Parks
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