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Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.

 

Outrage of the Month: Criminalizing Compassion for Homeless People

Health Letter, January 2015

Michael Carome, M.D.

Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the U.S. faces a pervasive, nationwide problem of homelessness. In its 2014 report, The State of Homelessness in America, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reported that 610,000 people were homeless in 2013.[1] While this represents an improvement from the estimate of 763,000 homeless people in 2005, the number remains unacceptably high and likely underestimates the scope of the problem.

For the individuals and families trapped by homelessness, each day represents a seemingly endless, desperate struggle to meet their most basic human needs, such as adequate food, clothing, shelter and health care. Each of these is essential for maintenance of good health and well-being, and, ultimately, survival.

Federal, state and local governments consistently have failed to fulfill their moral obligations to this highly vulnerable, economically disadvantaged population by not allocating sufficient resources to satisfy the daily basic needs of all homeless people and help them find affordable housing. As a result, homeless people across the country have come to routinely depend on the compassion of charitable organizations and individuals for food, clothing and shelter.

But now, in what can only be characterized as a shocking display of callousness for the less fortunate, cities across the country are making it illegal to help homeless people. Particularly troubling are the findings in the National Coalition for the Homeless’ (NCH) October 2014 report, Share No More: The Criminalization of Efforts to Feed People in Need.[2] The NCH previously has highlighted efforts by local jurisdictions to criminalize homelessness.[3] The new report documents the efforts of 31 cities since January 2013 to pass legislation or implement other actions designed to restrict or ban individuals and organizations from sharing food with homeless people.

According to the NCH, in 2013-14, 12 cities passed laws requiring individuals or groups to obtain a permit to distribute food on public property, and four cities enacted legislation restricting food sharing based on stringent food safety regulations. In addition, four cities orchestrated community pressure to force an end to or a relocation of a charitable food-sharing program. Other cities are pursuing similar efforts.

For example, the city of Raleigh, N.C., implemented a law forbidding individuals and groups from serving or distributing food of any kind in any city park without a permit issued by the Parks, Recreation and Greenway director. The necessary permit costs $800 per day. Commenting on the law, Tamara Gregory, executive director of the Shepherd's Table Soup Kitchen — a nonprofit group dedicating to feeding the needy in Raleigh[4] — said, “It's very disheartening when people are being threatened with jail when they are trying to make the system better.”[5]

The NCH report explains that among the motivations behind many of these laws is the myth that sharing food with homeless people enables them to remain homeless. But the true reasons people remain homeless are lack of affordable housing, unemployment, mental and physical disabilities, and poor-paying jobs.[6]

The shameful efforts by cities to stop or restrict compassionate people from feeding the needy will only imperil the physical and mental health of homeless individuals and will do nothing to solve the problem of homelessness. Such immoral laws are a national embarrassment and stain on the American conscience and must be rescinded or overturned. And the lawmakers who enact such legislation need to be run out of office.

Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Brian Carome, executive director of Street Sense, for reviewing and providing helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this column. Street Sense is a Washington, D.C.-based biweekly street newspaper that was founded in 2003. Its mission is to offer economic opportunities for people experiencing homelessness in the D.C. community through a newspaper that elevates voices and encourages debate on poverty and injustice.

References

[1] National Alliance to End Homelessness. The State of Homelessness in America 2014. May 27, 2014. https://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/the-state-of-homelessness-2014. Accessed December 2014.

[2] National Coalition for the Homeless. Share No More: The Criminalization of Efforts to Feed People in Need. October 2014. https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/food-sharing2014.pdf. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[3] The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless. Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities. July 2009. https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/crimzreport_2009_0.pdf. Accessed December 15, 2015.

[4] Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen. Welcome. https://www.shepherds-table.org/. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[5] WRAL.com. Raleigh city leaders to meet over Moore Square food flap. https://www.wral.com/raleigh-city-leaders-to-meet-wednesday-over-moore-square-food-flap/12818647/. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[6] National Coalition for the Homeless. Share No More: The Criminalization of Efforts to Feed People in Need. October 2014. https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/food-sharing2014.pdf. Accessed December 11, 2014.