Homeless Advocates Are Taking Houston's Cruel Food-Sharing Ban to Court

The suit alleges that Houston's law violates elements of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments


new legal challenge filed this week seeks to overturn an awful ban in Houston, Texas, on sharing food with the homeless and others in need.

The lawsuit was filed by the Houston chapter of Food Not Bombs (FNB)—a loose-knit advocacy coalition dedicated to "sharing free vegetarian food with hungry people and protesting war and poverty"—and three FNB volunteers. The case was filed in U.S. District Court in Houston.

The suit (which you can access here) alleges that the Houston law violates elements of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, including constitutional protections of free speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, due process, and equal protection. It asks the court to strike down the law and to award damages to the plaintiffs.

Opponents of the Houston law also filed an earlier challenge in Texas state court.

The ordinance, first adopted in 2012, prohibits "any organization or individual to sponsor or conduct a food service event on public or private property without the advance written consent of the public or private property owner or other individual with lawful control of the property." It defines a "food service event" as one "in which charitable food services are provided to more than five individuals." Its alleged purpose is to "assur[e] sanitary, quality foods are delivered to those in need, while protecting the environment and the rights of private property owners."

The ordinance also establishes a citywide program intended to distinguish between "charitable food services" such as Food Not Bombs and "recognized charitable food service providers," the latter, favored group including only people or organizations that have "received a certificate from the city designating said individual or organization as being in good standing in the City of Houston Recognized Charitable Food Service Provider Program."

Violators face fines of up to $2,000.

Houston's awful law is, well, awful. But it's not uniquely so. In fact, other cities that have or have had such bans in place over the years include Las Vegas, Fort Lauderdale, New York City, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Antonio, and many others, as I detail in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable.

I first wrote about both awful prohibitions on sharing food with those in need and Food Not Bombs in a 2011 blog post for Hit & Run (R.I.P.). In that case, Orlando's own cruel food-sharing ban had resulted in the arrest of several local Food Not Bombs members. I've written about such bans many times since, and described them all as "unconstitutional, discriminatory, and wrongheaded."

Randall L. Kallinen, a Houston civil rights lawyer who filed the lawsuit this week, shares that assessment. 

"Sharing food is a form of expression protected by the Constitution," Kallinen wrote to me in an email this week. "Likewise, Jesus taught his followers to feed the poor and others. Why should a few downtown Houston landowners that contribute to Mayor [Sylvester] Turner's elections campaign dictate the law under which all Houstonians must live[?]"

But many others also oppose the Houston law. In fact, the lawsuit itself notes an incredibly diverse set of local opponents of the measure. These include the local Green Party, Libertarian Party, Democratic Socialists, and Republican Party, along with a pair of local Tea Party and Democratic Party groups. They also include a local Nation of Islam chapter, along with local atheist, Christian, and Hare Krishna groups.

If everyone (save for some powerful developers) hates this law, then why is it still on the books? Because not everyone does. "Houston officials who've supported the ordinance say it protects the people receiving food and doesn't criminalize those providing it," the Texas Observer reported this week.

That's not how those sharing food in Houston view the law.

"I want to serve food wherever I feel like without having to worry about [police] officers," Shere Dore, one of the plaintiffs, told the Observer. "A lot of other people want to serve, but they are literally too scared to come out."

I hope this lawsuit swings the tide for Dore, Food Not Bombs, and Houston's hungry.

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28 responses to “Homeless Advocates Are Taking Houston's Cruel Food-Sharing Ban to Court

  1. …the Houston law violates elements of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, including constitutional protections of free speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, due process, and equal protection.

    What ordinance doesn’t violate at least some of those protections?

  2. “The ordinance, first adopted in 2012, prohibits “any organization or individual to sponsor or conduct a food service event on public or private property without the advance written consent of the public or private property owner or other individual with lawful control of the property.”

    I’d argue that the fundamental flaw in the ordinance from a philosophical standpoint is that you can’t get advance written consent from the owner of public property–because public property is not owned by the government.

    Rights are the obligation to respect other people’s choices and property rights are no different. Owning property means you get to make choices about who can use something, when it’s used, how it’s used, if it’s used, etc.

    The government may adjudicate these questions among competing interests, but it is not the owner. The same thing happens on public land in the west, where the BLM is charged with both protecting the interests of cattle ranchers, who use public land for grazing, and the interests of conservationists, who want the land used to protect wild horses that compete with cattle for grazing. The land is actually “owned” by those competing interests–among others.

    The homeless and people who want to feed them have just as much of a claim to use public parks as anyone else. The government shoudn’t be able to preemptively terminate the rights of their true owners.

    1. I like this take.

    1. It’s always a tragedy when a real sexual assault victim isn’t believed, but the idea that they should all be believed if they claim they were sexually assaulted . . .

      People tell lies for all kinds of reasons. Watch Maury Povich’s do “Who’s the Daddy” sometimes, when guys are often exonerated by genetic testing.

      Sometimes people say things because they’re angry. Sometimes they say things because they want to see what it feels like to say it. She may have gotten the wrong guy on a crowded bus. I’ve seen it happen that some guy pinched a girl’s ass in a bar and she turned around threw her glass at him. It wasn’t the guy that pinched her! It was someone else. She may have been mad at the guy on the bus for something he said and decided to get back at him by telling her brother what she needed to say to get him beaten up. She may have said something to her brother to justify losing her temper that day–and then felt like she had to stick with the story. The false “victims” of the McMartin preschool did that. It’s not just female victims of sexual assault. People make absurd accusations for all sorts of reasons.

      She may be charged as an accessory to manslaughter or guilty of conspiracy, in which case her defense team may argue that her brother should have known not to believe her.

      1. i rely on a very simple policy: If i’m trying to justify believing or not believing something by telling myself “no one would ever do *that*”, i pump the brakes.

        the potential awfulness of humans has no upper bound

  3. We typically only get one thread on Saturdays, so pardon the interruption, but . . .

    China just blinked.

    “BEIJING—China held back from immediate retaliation for higher U.S. tariffs, unlike in past rounds, taking time to weigh its options amid uncertainty over how the Chinese economy would weather a full-bore trade conflict . . . . While Beijing has met previous volleys of tariffs from the U.S. by raising duties on American goods—and the government has promised to retaliate—it held its fire.”

    Sometimes, a break in the escalation is the best we can reasonably hope for. Certainly, somebody had to stop escalating before things start getting better, and if it wasn’t going to be Trump, then here’s to the Chinese.

    Arbitrarily raising the prices that Chinese businesses and people pay for imports isn’t good for the Chinese economy. I wish Trump understood this better.

  4. If you’re going to do an article about a law like this, at least be honest enough to mention the real reason for the law, which is to try to drive homeless people away from parts of the city where they are being a nuisance and denying the safe use of streets and parks to the people who pay for the right to live in those neighborhoods.

    Handing out food to the homeless is what the law calls an attractive nuisance. There is nothing wrong or illegal about forbidding such a nuisance.

    Granted, a better way to keep the bums out would be to privatize the streets and parks they need to be kept out of. So let’s do that.

    1. Except the whole Right to peaceably assemble thing.

    2. laws should ban dangerous or harmful activities. sharing a sandwhich doesn’t hurt anyone.

    3. You’re wrong. So long as there is “public” land, the homeless have just as much right to be on it as you or I do as a taxpayer. If you don’t like “bums” hanging around, then you should argue for more private land, not more laws governing public land.

      1. A right for access to public lands does not extend to being allowed to defecate where you want, leave biohazardous material around, commit crimes, or treat it like your own personal property.

        You’re arguing that being able to visit a public park is equivalent to setting up camp and living in a public park. It is not the same thing…you’re only entitled to live in places where you own, pay rent, or have the explicit permission of the property owner (in most of these cases, the municipal government).

        I personally don’t like the bums hanging around, because they’re destructive to the property I pay my taxes to maintain (taxes they generally don’t pay). They’re free to visit those places, just like any other citizen, but it’s not their personal home or their personal property, and nobody is required to act as if it is. And city governments are entirely within their rights to move them on if they refuse to accept that.

    4. the people who pay for the right to live in those neighborhoods.

      If you’re paying for a right, you’re doing it wrong.

    5. “Handing out food to the homeless is what the law calls an attractive nuisance.”

      I don’t believe that is what is meant by “attractive nuisance”. An attractive nuisance is like when you maintain an empty swimming pool on your property, and the neighborhood kids start using for skateboarding. If you knew kids were using it for that purpose, did nothing to prevent it from being used for that purpose, and some parents’ kids sued you when their kid hurt himself in your empty pool, they would do so under the reasoning that you were purposely maintaining an attractive nuisance.

      Attracting homeless people to parks where they camp overnight, shit and piss everywhere, and basically stink up the place is not maintaining an attractive nuisance. If anything, you might charge the homeless with loitering, but if we can get a judge to convict people of loitering in a public park, then we really have lost our freaking minds.

      No doubt, the purpose of these ordinances is to prevent homeless people from congregating in that part of the city. While some people, a lot of progressives among them, think that our individual rights should be subordinated to the common good, libertarians don’t generally believe that an individual’s rights only exist insofar as respecting them is in the best interests of society.

      I don’t know that cigarettes, pr0n, prostitution, magic mushrooms, slasher films, alcohol, pay day loans, Scientology, gambling, gangster rap, or a million other things are in the best interests of society. People should be free to exercise their right to indulge in these things anyway. Maybe feeding homeless people and getting fed if you’re homeless is one of those things. If it isn’t in the best interest of the surrounding community–so what? At least you get to live in a free country.

  5. A fix for these kinds of problems is fairly obvious:
    Take your food to the vicinity of the poor, wrapped cleanly in plastic bags or other containers. Explain to them that it’s good, safe food, but, because you have more than you need, AND because Government Almighty has prohibited you from feeding it to them, you are going to throw it in the trash (here, follow me, homeless person). … (And bring your own trash can if need be).
    “OK, there it is, in the trash, maybe if you want to play it safe, you might want to ask permission of Government Almighty before you go dumpster-diving, but I’ll stand over here and kinda block the view, it’s all up to you, I am not trying to tell you what to do.”

    1. Or pretend to be a grocery store worker handing out samples?

  6. Don’t forget the Ninth. Everyone always forgets the Ninth.

    1. Citing the ninth is basically just asking for your case to be dismissed. Courts pretty much refuse to accept that the ninth even exists. How dare you claim that rights exist that aren’t specifically granted to you by a piece of parchment paper. What do you think this is, a free society??

  7. Feeding wild animals gets them accustomed to being fed by humans to the point where they forget their foraging skills. I’m sure the city officials are simply concerned with these filthy animals encroaching into human territory and spreading their filth and disease and displaying their nasty animal habits out in the open where rich white liberals decent people might encounter them.

    1. Actually, that’s exactly what’s happening in Seattle…only it’s not the wealthy who have to wade through streets littered in hobo shit, populated by screaming junkies, it’s the people who have to walk to get to work in the city to make their living, or deal with mass transit because they can’t afford the parking.

      It’s very easy to talk about how compassionate we should be about people who are on the streets primarily because of some combination of alcohol, drugs, and mental illness. It’s a very different proposition when the streets are overrun with them and their feces and their used drug needles because people who “just want to help” make living outdoors a more attractive proposition for them by giving them free food, free medical care, free drug needles (and sometimes drugs), free housing (aka a place to shoot up), and a laissez-faire attitude towards the property and violent crimes they commit.

      Frankly, the wild animal analogy is a lot more accurate than you realize…people who get things for free see no reason to work for those things and never fix their problems in life. And it’s all the people who aren’t fuck-ups, who make the city run, who get to suffer for it.

      1. Short version: I have no problem with this ban, and if the transients don’t like it, they can get themselves a fucking job and stop being the problem.

        And for the donors who don’t like it…maybe they should stop enabling rather than helping.

  8. “free vegetarian food”

    Well, they say beggars can’t be choosers…

  9. “The ordinance, first adopted in 2012, prohibits “any organization or individual to sponsor or conduct a food service event on public or private property without the advance written consent of the public or private property owner or other individual with lawful control of the property.”
    So with the advance written consent of a private property owner, it would seem that food, even vegetarian food, can be passed out. And if FNB has an office, owned or rented, they can give permission. And all the churches, mosques, and atheist meeting houses can give permission. Same for the various political parties listed. So where is the problem?
    Could it be the reporting is missing salient facts?

    1. No, all those organizations are all for feeding bums, but certainly not in their offices or churches.

  10. “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” James 4:17

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