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.