The Case Against Government Bans on Feeding the Homeless

The backlash against prohibitions on feeding the homeless and less fortunate is underway.


During the late 1990s, when I worked as a researcher in the Judiciary Square area of downtown Washington, DC, my job required me to walk across The Mall twice each day to pick up documents at the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation.

En route, I would invariably stop to talk with Elijah, a chatty Senegalese-immigrant street vendor who sold sunglasses and similar wares from a table in front of the Starbucks on Indiana Avenue near my office.

I don't recall how we became friendly, though I suspect we first struck up a conversation when one of us asked the other for a cigarette.

In the proceeding months, Elijah would occasionally ask me to work his table for a few minutes so he could run into a nearby restaurant to pick up lunch. During those times, I sold a few pairs of sunglasses and umbrellas—though I wasn't very good at the job and also refused to follow Elijah's off-the-books policy of charging white customers a premium.

Elijah had little in the way of worldly possessions. He didn't earn much money as a street vendor. He'd been homeless, and would later become so again.

Sometimes Elijah would bring hot food back to the table, not just for himself but also to share with me and with the one or two homeless men who spent much of the day (and, I suspect, the night) on park benches near where he set up shop.

I mention Elijah's selflessness and generosity toward me and these two men for this startling reason: While Elijah's act of sharing food with me would be legal virtually anywhere in this country, his decision to feed the homeless men who ate with us could be illegal in many cities today. The reason for this dramatic discrepancy boils down to this fact alone: I slept with a roof over my head, but the others slept under the stars.

Such illogic has led cities like New York City, Philadelphia, and Houston to ban residents from sharing food with the homeless and less fortunate. I called such laws "unconstitutional, discriminatory, and wrongheaded" in a column I wrote over the summer. They remain so.

But since I wrote that widely read column in June, I've noticed a welcome pattern emerging. These unjust laws are under attack.

Shortly after my column, in which I noted my support for a new ACLU of Pennsylvania lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia over that city's ban, a federal judge forced Philadelphia officials to back down.

U.S. District Court Judge William Yohn, Jr. issued an injunction in July that prevented the city from enforcing the ban against the plaintiffs, which include religious organizations that provide food to the homeless and less fortunate. Judge Yohn later outlined the terms of an interim agreement that heavily favors the plaintiffs—by, for example, keeping in place the injunction, ordering the city to remove any signage related to the ban, and compelling the city of Philadelphia to pay the plaintiffs' attorney fees.

The Philadelphia victory, though not yet complete, is just one of many such recent examples.

In Chicago, for example, at least one politician, Ald. James Cappleman, recently tried to banish a Salvation Army food truck from feeding the homeless in his neighborhood. (At least his position, enraging as it may be, is consistent with the city's larger stance against food trucks.) Soon, under pressure, Cappleman backed down.

In Seattle, city officials recently ordered the Bread of Life Mission, which had been feeding people in the city's Pioneer Square for more than 70 years, to halt its efforts. Facing a backlash, city officials relented.

While Chicago and Seattle have scrapped such bans, other governments have been moving to protect the right of individuals and groups to share food with others.

A recently passed New Jersey law strengthens that state's Good Samaritan Law—modeled after a largely toothless federal law of the same name—by permitting "universities to donate food to charitable organizations without fear of lawsuit[s]" over unintended food contamination. A similar law was passed recently in Nunavut, Canada. And Louisiana legislators have promised action after state health officials destroyed more than a thousand pounds of venison donated by hunters that would have been used to feed the hungry in the state.

But not everyone who claims to care about the homeless and less fortunate supports such changes.

Mark Horvath, who posts short films of the homeless at his website, urged "regulation on public feeding to homeless people" in a recent Huffington Post column, calling such donations "a heath and public safety issue!"

How can he justify his stance?

"For me," writes Horvath, "it's important that the food I buy in a grocery store is inspected." As an example of what can happen if individuals are permitted to share uninspected food with the homeless, Horvath cites a story he says he heard years before "about a few college kids going around putting feces in sandwiches and giving them out to homeless people."

Perhaps Horvath might change his mind if he knew that virtually none of the food he buys in a grocery store is inspected.

"In 2011," reports Bloomberg News, "the FDA inspected 6 percent of domestic food producers and just 0.4 percent of importers."

And those infinitesimal inspection figures represent one-time visits to individual producers—rather than inspections of individual products.

What's more, tampered-food stories like the one he shared are most often hoaxes.

Even if Horvath's shit sandwich example is true—and he presents no evidence it is—monstrous people who would tamper with food (whether donated or otherwise) already rightly face severe criminal and civil penalties.

On at least one issue, it appears Horvath and I agree.

"[H]omeless people should be treated like everyone else," he writes.

That's true. When the Elijahs of the world want to share food with others, the law should treat them—the homeless or the less fortunate—as dignified, suitable donors or recipients of charity. Just like everyone else.