Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Cities That Outlaw Feeding The Homeless

Michelle Chen at The Nation tells us the story.

The problem with preventing the offering of free food in the public commons should be obvious to any civil libertarian: how do you tell a multi-family picnic in the park from an organized effort to feed a group of homeless people in the same park? The potential problems of public park usage are virtually the same in the two cases.

Are all the people at an outdoor holiday meal for a family of 50 or 100 actually related? Do they all even know each other? If each family member at a "family" picnic brings a friend, that creates a group with (say) 50 family members and 50 unrelated people; how does that differ from a charity-organized meal with 50 volunteers doing the feeding and 50 homeless people being fed?

I've heard it argued that meals for the homeless (e.g. in the winter holiday season) create an unacceptable mess as all the people being fed simply dump their uneaten food, plates, cups and plastic utensils on the ground, in a way that "normal" people (grrrr!) would never do (yeah, right). And indeed that would pose a legitimate problem if the statement were not false on its face.

Back in my pre-crippled days I've volunteered help for a couple of feedings. I've also attended a large number of family/friends picnics in my life. And I have seen absolutely no difference in the amount of mess created by the two kinds of events. Moreover, the easy remedy is the same in either case: find a small number of people (volunteers for feedings in the first case; willing family/friends in the second) to collect and dispose of trash.

Of course a city (*cough* *cough* Ft. Lauderdale *cough* *cough*) can pass laws to make absolutely certain that any kind of public feeding will NOT work, e.g., by removing trash cans from public parks... see the Nation article linked above. But this forces local families who want to picnic in a park near their home either to pack out their trash (risking accusations that they are "camping" in the language of some ordinances) or to throw the trash right on the ground at the meal site (you may be surprised that the overwhelming majority of people are NOT willing to do this).

The core of the problem is that these cities are neither making a legitimate effort to end homelessness nor striving to provide food for indigent people through outlets that have none of the unpleasant consequences described above.

But it's worse than that: some of these cities have an approach to homeless people that can only truthfully be called the "get out; go to another town" approach; that becomes less and less effective as the homeless and indigent rates increase, not just in big cities that are formerly the centers of industrial economies, but also in small towns, suburbs, bedroom communities, etc. In short, the homeless cannot simply move away from community discontent, nor can communities simply force the homeless to do so.

When times are tough and resources are scarce, the "homeless problem" eventually becomes almost everyone's problem, whether or not any given individual is homeless or not. It would certainly be an improvement if at least the government entities (city councils, county commissions, etc.) stopped all the finger-pointing, and comfortably well-off people who use the parks would forget their hostile shouts of "get a job." Believe me... the accused would gladly do just that if they could.

Here ends the rant for the day...

From the Houston Food Not Bombs web site...

(I have no connection with this group myself, but they seem to have made a go of it since 1994. They serve only vegan meals; there are other org's in Houston if you want to serve something else.)

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