Policy

Feeding the Homeless Should Not Be a Crime

A North Carolina city council member wants to make feeding homeless people a misdemeanor.

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A Charlotte, North Carolina, city council member's outrageous suggestion last week that people who share food with the homeless should face criminal charges has touched a nerve in the community.

"People [are] still bringing food and money and resources directly to the folks that are out there right now," said Charlotte City Council Member Tariq Bokhari, in remarks reported by local station WBVT. "They're only making themselves feel good, they're hurting the ultimate folks, perhaps we explore making that a misdemeanor."

Bokhari says he wants residents instead to donate to charities that provide services, rather than directly to homeless people. But some of the people who work with such charities appear dumbfounded.

"In what world when we as a society are at a place where we would criminalize the act of humanity, care, and consideration and compassion for others in any way, shape, or form—there's a huge problem," responded Kenya Joseph, of the nonprofit Hearts for the Invisible Charlotte Coalition.

"You shouldn't feel like 'I'm going to go to jail because I helped someone,' because you never know if they truly are on their last (dollar), if it's money needed to eat," Deborah Woolard, founder of Block Love Charlotte, told the Charlotte Observer, one of several who spoke out against Bokhari's proposal.

With good reason. Bokhari's cruel and oppressive suggestion would turn heroes such as ZaNia Stinson, a formerly homeless Charlotte teen who shares food with people in need in the city, into criminals.

But he's hardly the only person who wants to arrest good Samaritans. In fact, Bokhari's remarks came just days after a federal court in Orange County, California, ruled against an elderly man who was handcuffed, injured, and arrested while sharing food with the homeless at a state park.

In August 2018, police handcuffed Don Lemly, age 72, at Doheny State Beach as he tried to share food with homeless people gathered there. According to Lemly and his wife, the arrest involved excessive force. They allege park ranger Nicholas Milward "knocked a soda away from Don Lemly that he told jurors he feared could be used as a weapon, grabbed him and walked him over to a curb, cursed at him to sit down, handcuffed him and cited him for failing to comply with a police officer's orders." When Lemly cited an earlier ACLU settlement that protects the rights of people like him to share food with the homeless, Milward allegedly called the ACLU "a freaking joke."

Lemly isn't laughing.

"We believe that people, no matter what their circumstances, deserve to have decent food," Lemly, who volunteers with an interfaith coalition, told jurors. "If people who are in comfortable circumstances like I am don't stand up for what's right and call out somebody who's a bully in law enforcement, then our society is in big trouble."

Crackdowns on sharing food with the homeless and less fortunate, while odious, are nothing new. In my 2016 book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Law Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, I detail how many major American cities, including 

Las Vegas, Orlando, Dallas, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, Birmingham, and San Antonio have banned people from sharing food with the homeless and less fortunate. Though public backlash and lawsuits have helped push back against some bans, this month's events in Charlotte and Orange County show the need for continued vigilance and concerted efforts to eliminate such laws.

And, at a time when most Americans recognize the need for sweeping criminal justice reforms, the examples provided by Bokhari's remarks and Lemly's arrest also drive home another important point: because law enforcement necessarily involves employing the power of the state to arrest people—often, as in the case of Lemly's arrest, through the use of physical force and violence—we shouldn't adopt any law that isn't worth using violence to enforce. 

Rampant overcriminalization is why Yale Law School Prof. Stephen L. Carter, for one, cautions his students against "invoking the power of law except in a cause for which they are willing to kill." That's just one of many reasons criminalizing the sharing of food with the homeless and less fortunate is abominable. Instead of endangering and arresting good people who share food with the homeless and others in need, we should be celebrating their generosity.