HOUSTON (CN) – With charities and nonprofits across the United States preparing to give homeless people Thanksgiving dinners, Houston citizens are urging city officials to repeal a law that criminalizes feeding the homeless.
One woman told the City Council this week that threats from Houston police made her abandon her custom of buying 500 McDonald’s meals for homeless people every Sunday.
Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker and the City Council approved Ordinance No. 2012-269 in April 2012 by 11-6 vote.
The Houston Anti-Feeding Ordinance made it a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a $2,000 fine to give food to more than five homeless people without a permit on city property, or without the permission of private property owners.
Parker said the law was needed to address food-poisoning concerns and complaints about homeless people littering and loitering in neighborhoods where charities fed people.
Houston civil rights attorney Randall Kallinen posted a petition to repeal the law on Change.org that was just 413 signatures short of its goal of 75,000 signatures Thursday night.
Though a city attorney told the City Council on Tuesday that no one has been fined for feeding the homeless, Kallinen told the council it has deterred people from simple acts of kindness.
“On my Facebook page people have said to me, ‘I was out feeding the homeless and the police came up to me and told me to stop.’ And they did. … So this law has stopped many people, Good Samaritans, from feeding the homeless,” Kallinen said.
“This law is bad for multiple reasons. They say it is more blessed to give than to receive, so this isn’t just for the homeless, but for all those people who want to give.”
Sonia Parker, 50, told the council she used to buy 500 McDonald’s meals for people staying at the Star of Hope shelter every Sunday.
“But HPD told me we can’t do it,” she said.
Parker said outside the meeting that she plans to get a permit.
Houston is the fourth-largest city by population in the United States. City employees in New York and Chicago said they do things differently there.
“Chicago is committed to a compassionate and consistent approach to providing services for any and all residents experiencing homelessness. There are no rules or laws in Chicago barring anyone from giving a homeless resident food or meals, because homelessness isn’t illegal and thus shouldn’t be criminalized,” Department of Family and Support Services spokeswoman Jennifer Rottner said in a statement.
“No, of course not,” Aja Worthy-Davis, press secretary for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, said by email when asked if New York City criminalizes feeding the homeless.
But Worthy-Davis said the city health department does have rules about donating leftover food.
Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest city, puts donated packaged and cooked food in different categories for safety reasons.
“In general, in Los Angeles, a special public health permit is not required if donating uncooked, prepackaged food products, and [they] can be donated to approved food handlers or individuals,” Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority spokeswoman Carolyn Pruitt said in a statement.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner took office in January and had nothing to do with the passage of Houston’s law more than four years ago.
He seemed exasperated with Kallinen and other members of the public at Tuesday’s City Council meeting for bringing it up now, and said his administration is focused on bigger obstacles facing Houston’s homeless than their next meals.
“Nothing has changed. There’s been no ordinance changing anything from the time that I’ve come into office, but the focus of this administration has become meeting the needs of the entire person, their holistic needs,” Turner said.
Absent from the City Council’s discussion was a commitment from the mayor or any council member to put repeal of the law to a vote.
There were 3,626 homeless people in the Houston area in January. They were counted over three days by 400 volunteers, according to Marc Eichenbaum, leader of the city’s efforts to reduce homelessness.
The city hired Eichenbaum after the ordinance passed and he declined to comment on it. But he did explain what Turner means by a “holistic” approach.
“While food is important, food alone has never gotten somebody not to be homeless, and there are over 10 different organizations that provide food just in the downtown area alone. Food isn’t the big missing gap for our homeless; the big missing gap is getting them housed. So that’s where a lot of our focus is on,” Eichenbaum said in an interview.
He said the city sometimes will use food to draw people to shelters where they’ll be assessed for placement into housing run by nonprofits, or in apartment complexes, where they will have access to “supportive services” such as mental health and substance abuse counseling.
Eichenbaum has some impressive stats that show the city’s methods are working.
“Houston is the largest city in the nation to have effectively ended veteran homelessness. We have housed nearly 5,000 homeless veterans since 2012,” he said — though there always will be people who refuse help.
Eichenbaum credited the city’s partner, the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, composed of more than 100 organizations, and its campaign The Way Home, with putting together a federal grant application for homeless housing that got the highest score of any region in the United States.
The federal government recently awarded The Way Home more than $8 million in grant money to continue programs that have housed about 8,000 homeless people since 2012, Eichenbaum said.
Tania Anderson, 64, spoke to the City Council on Tuesday in support of the repeal petition.
Anderson is a flight attendant who flies with U.S. military personnel all over the world.
“I’ve lived in Africa and India, and I used to feed the people across the street from my tiny little hotel in Nigeria. Nobody ever stopped me,” she said in an interview.
She said she realized how easy it is to become homeless during the financial crisis that began in 2008.
“So many people had so many problems, and I couldn’t get a damn job for like five years. I couldn’t believe it.”
Mayor Turner’s approach doesn’t mean a thing to someone whose stomach is empty, Anderson said.
“I know the mayor was talking about a holistic approach, but this is La-La Land. Time is wasting. Feed them. I’m hungry now. How would he like to go without food for the next two days? I’m not being mean,” she said.
Shawn Spaulding, 51, has been homeless in Houston for six months.
She was a housewife in Spring, a northern suburb, she said, until she called the police on her husband for assaulting her. He went to jail and she lost her disability benefits on a technicality, which forced her into the streets.
She sat on a retaining wall outside a Walgreens in northwest Houston on Thursday, holding a sign: “Homeless & Hungry.” With a twinkle in her green eyes, she joked that you can see the devil on her shoulder at times when her bipolar disorder flares up.
Spaulding said she’s made from $6.50 panhandling for four hours one day, to around $100 on a Sunday.
“I was able to pay for lodging for two days with that. So I had a bed, a roof, a shower, just things you take for granted,” she said.
Chewing on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich a passerby gave her, Spaulding was incredulous when told about Houston’s ban on feeding the homeless.
“Sometimes the only thing I do eat is when someone drops off a sack lunch or something. Sometimes I eat pretty good. I had scallops and rigatoni last night,” she said.
“Some lady in a Lexus dropped it off. It was good.”