It seems like every Christmas season, as we're all encouraged to be charitable to those in need, some local government threatens to punish those who do.
This year it's Newark, New Jersey. The New York Times reports that city officials are planning to ban charitable groups like churches from feeding the homeless without the proper permits.
According to the Times, city staff announced just before Thanksgiving that it was outright banning groups from feeding homeless people out in public places. But after the Times contacted the city and started asking questions, a spokesperson for Mayor Ras Baraka changed gears and said the organizations would have to get permits. Anybody found feeding homeless people without a permit will be ticketed and fined.
This proposal is not only heartless, but also arguably unconstitutional. Bans on feeding homeless people in other cities have been challenged on the grounds that such sharing counts as expressive conduct under the First Amendment. In August, a panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that Fort Lauderdale, Florida, violated the First Amendment rights of the philanthropic group Food Not Bombs when the city passed a similar ordinance requiring organizations to seek permits before feeding the homeless.
While it may feel odd to consider the idea that giving somebody food is a form of speech or expression, the court took note that Food Not Bombs was an organization using its philanthropy to spread a particular message—that social welfare should have higher priority and food access should be treated as a human right. One does not have to agree with their position to understand that their actions, then, are also expressive conduct. Similarly, churches and individuals have also challenged these bans under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) because their food donations are part of their religious missions.
Newark officials did the familiar song and dance to try to justify using the force of government to stop people from voluntarily giving food to other people in public places even though such activities were not causing harm nor violating anybody else's rights. They insisted they wanted to make sure that the food being given out was safe and wanted people to go to shelters and soup kitchens instead of feeding in parks. The mayor has chosen a "homelessness czar" named Sakinah Hoyte, and the city opened a housing facility this year to serve as transitional shelters for the needy. "Feeding people in parks doesn't encourage any sort of transitioning folks into housing. It keeps people living on sidewalks and sleeping outside," said Hoyte to the Times.
She provides no evidence to support this claim, and the Times follows up by talking to Josiah Haken, the program officer for City Relief, which serves meals to the homeless. Haken points out that offering food to people living on the street is the first step of building trust that will be necessary to get them into housing eventually. But Hoyte is taking the very bureaucratic line of thinking she can order the homeless to go to the proper places and talk to the city-approved people for help.
The Times also notes that members of a nearby business improvement group representing a neighborhood currently undergoing redevelopment have been pushing for restrictions on feeding homeless people outdoors. But using government power to punish charitable work will not fix the city's problems with homelessness.
Below, Reason TV covered a similar ordinance passed in Philadelphia in 2012: