Homelessness

Feeding the Homeless? There Could Be a Law Against That!

Merry Christmas.

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The holiday season tends to be a time of charitable giving and volunteering—30 percent of donations to non-profits come in December while 16 percent of adults volunteer about two hours a month between Thanksgiving and Christmas (a five percent increase over how many adults volunteer the rest of the year).

But if you're trying to feed the homeless, you'll have to be careful about hurdles thrown up by local governments.

Regular readers of Reason may know about this awful trend well. We've covered various crack downs and indignities in places like Orlando, Dallas, San Antonio, Tampa, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, which Baylen Linnekin wrote earlier this month was the latest jurisdiction using police as a "blunt instrument" to crack down on feeding the homeless.

On Christmas Day, the Associated Press reported on the November citations in Atlanta highlighted by Linnekin, and noted that dozens of cities around the country have laws placing restrictions on sharing food (how feeding the homeless is classified).

Adele MacLean, one of the volunteers with Food Not Bombs who received a citation for serving food without a permit, had her case thrown out earlier this month. Her lawyer, Gerry Weber of the Southern Center for Human Rights, told the AP he believes police will continue to crack down on those trying to feed the homeless and called on the city to make a definitive statement on the right of residents to feed the homeless in public spaces.

Weber accused officers of distributing a "misleading pamphlet" bearing the city seal that claimed volunteers needed a permit to share food in public spaces—he says there is no such city law. (There is a county law that's been on the book for years but only began to be enforced in Atlanta just before Thanksgiving).

"I salute genuinely the good will and good nature of all these people," Sgt. Joseph Corrigan, the chaplain in charge of the Georgia State University police department's homeless outreach program, told the AP. "There is no bad guy in this."

With all due respect, it seems pretty clear that in this situation the "bad guys," such as it were, are the people keeping other people from feeding those in need.

Corrigan insisted homeless people needed to be connected to shelters and other organizations, and that feeding them in public places led to food safety and other public health issues like garbage and human waste left behind.

But if these were the city's concerns, it's possible to deal with them without a police crackdown. The resources expended on police actions could be used to alleviate some of the associated problems or enable volunteers to better handle them.

It's not just the city that's upset by attempts to feed the homeless that don't comport to their preferences.

George Chidi, the social impact director for Central Atlanta Progress, a community development non-profit, told the AP feeding the homeless in public spaces could disrupt other efforts to capture homeless people within pre-existing, and often government-backed, social services.

"We don't want anybody to stop feeding people," Chidi insisted to the AP. "We just want it done in a way that's connected to social services providers … and not on the street corner because we can't make sure those connections are being made in these street corner feedings."

Like the city, Chidi's organization is free to deploy resources to assist volunteers in helping to make those connections if itbelievesthat's a problem.

MacLean dismisses Chidi and the city's concerns in their entirety.

"Food is a human right, and you don't force people to do what you want them to do by withholding food," MacLean told the AP.

The declaration that food is a human right is not particularly useful—as Sheldon Richman notes, "a government-declared 'right'(that does not reflect natural rights) is no right at all; it is rather a declared government power to allocate goods and services."

In that context, the government's approach to private individuals attempting to feed the homeless makes more sense, though it's still wrong. The government's power here ought to be questioned and challenged.

Food may not be a human right. But the freedom to feed others (if they want to be fed!) is.

Watch Reason TV on the crackdown in Philly