Prohibitions on Sharing Food with People Experiencing Homelessness.
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The criminalization of homelessness in the United States remains a severe problem. Through a variety of measures ranging from anti-camping laws to selective enforcement of public intoxication laws, cities continue to implement measures that criminalize being homeless. In recent years, many cities have adopted a new tactic – one that targets not only homeless persons but also individual citizens and groups who attempt to share food with them. These food sharing restrictions include a wide variety of ordinances, policies, and tactics intended to discourage individuals and groups from sharing food with homeless persons.
This Report first provides an overview of the problem and examines some alternatives to food sharing restrictions, including hopeful steps that cities have taken to combat hunger without criminalizing food sharing efforts. These examples suggest that alternatives to food sharing restrictions do exist and that local governments and homeless advocates can successfully work together to reach a common goal.
The remainder of the Report provides summaries of cities where food sharing restrictions and policies have been enforced. The list includes cities from every portion of the country and examples of many different types of laws or policies that have been used to criminalize sharing food with homeless persons. This list is not exhaustive. It presents a sampling of those cities and counties where food sharing restrictions have been implemented. But it also includes examples where cities have relaxed current food sharing restrictions and have taken steps to work with community groups to reach results that satisfy the city’s interests while allowing groups to continue sharing food with homeless persons.
III. Overview of Problem
Even as cities are pursuing measures to target homeless people, most cities do not have adequate services, shelter space, or affordable housing to meet the need. In 2006, 68% of the 23 cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported an increase in requests for emergency shelter, with the average increase being 9%. Despite this increase, cities do not have adequate shelter space to meet the need. According to the Mayors’ Survey, an average of 23% of overall emergency shelter requests went unmet, while 29% of shelter requests by homeless families went unmet.
Homeless people not only struggle with lack of shelter and housing, but also with hunger. The Mayor’s Survey also reported an average increase of 7% in the overall requests for emergency food assistance, with 74% of surveyed cities reporting an increase. In addition, 23% of the requests for emergency food assistance went unmet, and 18% of requests made by families went unmet.
When homeless people are forced to live outside, obtaining something as vital as food to survive becomes a great challenge. Some cities may not have adequate indoor food programs to meet the need. In other cities, homeless persons may not be able to travel to indoor food programs due to work conflicts, illness, disability, or lack of adequate public transportation. According to a national survey of homeless people, 28% sometimes or often do not get enough to eat, compared with 12% of poor American adults; 20% eat one meal a day or less; and 40% did not have anything to eat on one or more days during the month previous to the survey. Further, although most homeless people are probably eligible to receive food stamps, only 37% of them are receiving this benefit.
The right to food is a well-recognized human right. This basic human right is explicitly mentioned in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and over 120 instruments of international law. Twenty-two countries have included a right to food in their domestic constitutions. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has stated, a nation must refrain from taking “actions that result in increasing levels of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition.” Food sharing restrictions deny homeless persons this basic human right. Placing restrictions on food sharing at a time where there is an increased need for housing and food assistance leaves many people with nowhere to turn for basic survival needs.
IV. Myths about Homeless People and Hunger
There are several myths about people who are homeless and their access to food that have led to current laws and attitudes. One common myth already mentioned is that food stamps are easily accessible to people who are homeless and many homeless people take advantage of this program. Over half of the homeless population does not receive food stamps. Lack of transportation, lack of knowledge about the program, mental illness, lack of an address, and lack of documentation are some of the common barriers that prevent homeless people from receiving food stamps.
Another misconception is that hunger is not a problem for homeless individuals. Many people believe that food pantries and soup kitchens are so abundant and accessible that every homeless person can get food if he or she desires. Food pantries do not effectively meet the needs of people without homes because homeless people lack the cooking facilities necessary to make use of the food. Additionally, many food pantries give only one box of food away per month which is not nearly enough.
Cities also may not have adequate food availability through soup kitchens. Many cities do not have enough facilities to serve all those in need three times a day, seven days a week. In addition, in many public discussions about food programs, proponents of food sharing restrictions frequently assume that people who are homeless are mentally and physically able to walk or travel by other means significant distances to get to a food program on time. Unfortunately, homeless people may not be able to travel significant distances for food due to work conflicts, illness, disability, or lack of adequate public transportation.
Some proponents of food sharing restrictions have argued that sharing food with people in outdoor locations enables them to remain homeless. More likely, persons who receive food from outdoor food programs may remain homeless due to lack of affordable housing, shelter space, and services, or due to their struggles with physical or psychiatric disabilities or substance addiction. Instead of removing food sources, cities would more likely reduce or end homelessness in their cities by finding solutions to the underlying causes of homelessness. Framing sharing food as a factor in enabling people to remain homeless is misleading. Food is not an addiction; food is necessary for survival. Depriving a person of food means that she must put all of her energy into obtaining food and less energy on improving other aspects of her life. Food sharing programs that reach out to those in public spaces may be the only way some homeless individuals can obtain healthy and safe food.
V. Types of Food Sharing Restrictions
Food sharing restrictions take a number of forms. Some laws explicitly prohibit or limit the sharing of food with indigent or homeless persons. These laws present troubling questions about individual rights and freedoms that have been examined in recent court challenges. Another group of laws use the selective enforcement of neutral permit and licensing requirements to limit food sharing. Almost all cities have regulations that require permits for large gatherings in city parks and licenses for food distribution in order to comply with local health and safety standards. In recent years, some cities have begun using these ordinances to prevent individuals and groups from giving away food to homeless persons.
The motivations behind city food sharing restrictions vary as greatly as the tactics themselves. For instance, some cities view the restrictions as a way to channel charitable activities through designated organizations and institutions that provide services. Other food sharing restrictions seem geared toward moving homeless persons out of downtown areas and away from tourist and business locations. Finally, some cities’ restrictions demonstrate an open hostility to the presence of homeless persons anywhere in the city limits.
Violations of food sharing restrictions can result in severe penalties. In one extreme case, the Orlando police arrested a man under a city ordinance that prohibited sharing food with more than 25 people without a permit. The man, Eric Montanez, was a member of the group, Food Not Bombs (FNB), that had attempted to circumvent the Orlando ordinance by having each FNB member serve only 24 people. When the Orlando police, who had been observing FNB’s activities, determined that Montanez had served food to 30 people, he was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. The penalty for violating this law is up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail. Mr. Montanez was eventually found not guilty of violating the ordinance by a jury.
Complying with food sharing restrictions can also be quite difficult. In many cases when food sharing groups have attempted to obtain the proper permits or licenses, their applications have been denied or the groups have been told to move their operations to more remote locations.
Some local service providers and advocates often find themselves in an awkward position when these kinds of restrictions are passed and implemented in their communities. While many groups may not support these measures, some are fearful of speaking out against city actions when they rely on city funding to operate their organizations.
VI. Alternatives to Food Sharing Restrictions
In spite of the increase in food sharing restrictions in some cities, there are signs of hope. As some cities take steps to restrict and complicate efforts to share food with homeless persons, other cities have explored novel ways to facilitate these efforts.
Many cities across the country have begun extending school lunch programs into the summer months in an effort to feed hungry children year-round. One of the largest efforts is in the New York City school system which provided 4.4 million lunches and 2 million breakfasts last summer and plans to exceed those numbers this year. The city’s program not only serves meals at schools but also brings lunches to places where children congregate in the summer: parks, pools, libraries, and community centers.
Other major cities across the country, including Los Angeles, Boston, Columbus, Ohio, Austin, Texas, and Louisville, Kentucky, have begun similar programs. Like New York, most of these programs are federally funded by the Summer Food Service Program. While these summer lunch programs focus on hungry children, at least one city has attempted to extend the concept to adults as well. In Oregon, after first implementing a free program for children, the Coos Bay Public Schools have begun offering the meals to adults as well for the price of $1.
Summer lunch programs are not the only example of expanding existing programs to combat the problem of hunger among homeless persons in American cities. Authorized restaurants can receive food stamps for meals provided to homeless people. San Francisco has taken advantage of this provision of the Food Stamp Program so that homeless persons can now use food stamps to buy hot, pre-made meals at various restaurants throughout the city. Allowing homeless food stamp participants to use their benefits at restaurants is important because food stamp participants are not permitted to use their food stamps to purchase hot, prepared food at grocery stores. Further, since homeless people often do not have cooking or food storage facilities, this program greatly increases their ability to have access to a variety of nutritious foods.
In Portland, Oregon, the non-profit Sisters of the Road became the first café to accept food stamps. The price of a meal is $1.25 and can be paid with food stamps, cash, or barter work. Nationwide, some non-profit cafes able to accept food stamps have closed, while new cafes are scheduled to open in several cities, including New York. Initiatives like this are important; however, low participation rates of homeless people in the Food Stamp Program inhibit the usefulness of such programs.
Cleveland, Ohio, has also pursued a more productive approach to help homeless persons access food. To better coordinate public food sharing, the City of Cleveland contracted with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) to bring religious congregations, Food Not Bombs, and individuals who serve food to homeless people together to talk about how to improve services. The coordination effort stemmed from a long-standing public debate related to serving food in downtown areas of the city, especially the center of downtown called Public Square.
The City of Cleveland contracted with NEOCH to coordinate all the professional outreach teams providing services to homeless people who are living outside. NEOCH began this process by organizing monthly meetings with outreach workers; including the PATH workers, the Salvation Army team, and the Healthcare for the Homeless team. The goal was to develop one contact number so that individuals could call an outreach worker in lieu of calling law enforcement about any concerns over a homeless person in the public space. Workers from many groups are now coordinating their schedules so that every person who is sleeping outside has contact with a trusted friend every few days. This coordinated outreach builds trusting relationships and reduces contacts between law enforcement and those experiencing homelessness.
The goal is to bring coordination to a disjointed system eventually moving all the food providers indoors, but still supporting the right of groups to share food with individuals who would like to eat outside. For example, NEOCH found that on Sundays on Public Square in the center of downtown over 700 meals are served by six different groups. However, on Monday nights no groups regularly shared food on the Square. Many service groups were skeptical of the city’s motives for participating in the meetings and were concerned about losing access to the Public Square area as a distribution site. Prior to coordination, food providers faced space constraints due to construction, insufficient trash receptacles, waste that attracts vermin, and a lack of bathrooms and running water.
Despite some food providers’ initial skepticism about how coordination of programs would impact their efforts, the professional outreach teams met with the downtown food distributors and began to work closely with them to provide services for homeless people. All providers have agreed to work together to provide food in a strategic and coordinated manner. All parties called together are now working on a plan to find an indoor location that will be available for any church or religious congregation to sign out and use for spiritual outreach and/or for food distribution. The city had existing licensing and health inspections already on the books, but decided not to use the heavy hand of law enforcement or bureaucratic obstacles to serve the needs of everyone who uses Public Square.
Another example of a long-standing well-run operation is McKenna’s Wagon, a project of Martha’s Table in Washington, DC. McKenna’s Wagon is a meal van that goes to various locations throughout the city on a daily basis to serve food to homeless individuals. According to Lindsey Buss, Executive Director of Martha’s Table, a key element to their program is working with the community to address any community concerns in a proactive manner. Throughout a meal service, McKenna’s Wagon volunteers and staff clean up any trash they produce. McKenna’s Wagon staff are always available to talk to community members and have worked with community members to find resolutions to any concerns in a timely manner.
Although there are hopeful signs, a nationwide trend in food sharing restrictions remains the reality. The next section documents these laws in various cities.
U.S. Conference of Mayors, Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A Status Report on Hunger & Homelessness in America’s Cities – a 23-City Survey
Interagency Council on Homelessness, Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve – Findings of the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients 7-1 (1999).
Gen. Accounting Office, Homelessness: Barriers to Using Mainstream Programs 20 (2000).
Laura Niada, Hunger and International Law, 22 Conn. J. Int’l. L. 131, at 166.
Willoughby Mariano, Activist Arrested While Feeding Homeless in Downtown Orlando, Orlando Sentinel, April 4, 2007, available at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/orange/orl-bk-homeless-040507,0,1876560.story?coll=orl-home-headlines.
Orlando, Fla., Code of Ordinances, ch. 1, § 1.08 (2007).
Kate Santich, Man not guilty in homeless feeding case, Orlando Sentinel, October 9, 2007, available at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/orange/orl-bk-montanez10092007,0,4192156.story?coll=orl-bucs.
Julie Bosman, Public Schools Feed Multitudes in the Summer, N.Y. Times, July 10, 2007, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/10/nyregion/10schools.html?ex=1341720000&en=3c438aee866f053f&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.
See id.; City of Los Angles, Department of Recreation & Parks, Summer Food Service Program, http://www.laparks.org/dos/lunchprogram/lunch.htm.
Azenith Smith, Coos Bay Schools Serves Up Free Lunch, KCBY-TV3451, June 18, 2007, http://www.kcby.com/news/local/8057192.html.
United States Department of Agriculture, The National Nutrition Safety Net: Tools for Community Food Security 11 (2003).
See City and County of San Francisco, Human Services Agency, San Francisco, Programs, Food Stamps, http://www.sfgov.org/site/frame.asp?u=http://www.sfhsa.org/.