It has been two-and-a-half years since the city of Seattle issued a ban on feeding homeless people in city parks. When the ordinance initially passed, many food banks, ministries and food programs assumed that something so outrageous would probably never be enforced. They were wrong. The Bread of Life Mission on South Main Street was told that it needed to obtain permits from the city before continuing its major street-feed operation, but when a representative from the mission pursued one, the city said they were not issuing permits at that time.
The principle reasons for the ban? “Wasted food” and “the tendency for the homeless to gather in parks” are two that city workers have cited. Employees of the city want more control over Seattle’s homeless population, because they claim that directing hungry, unhoused folks to missions or shelters that have worked with the city to get permits will be connected with more social services.
However, this is not the case. The number of people sleeping outside during King County’s One Night Count was up 21 percent from last year’s count. It should come as no surprise that simply blocking access to food without actually budgeting and providing for those social services is not going to reduce the number of people on the streets.
This — both mushrooming homelessness and citywide bans on feeding — is not just happening in Seattle. Las Vegas, where the homeless population has doubled in the past decade, was among the first to outlaw feeding homeless people. At least 33 cities are, rather proudly it seems, passing similar restrictions or outright bans on giving food to unhoused people. The ramifications can be steep: hefty fines and even jail time. One of the first people to be charged under the new law in Fort Lauderdale, the 13th city since 2012 to pass such an ordinance, was 90-year-old war veteran Arnold Abbott.
The reasoning for this rash of bans on the compassionate act of providing food to the poor varies, from New York forbidding all government-run shelters from distributing food for fear of it “not being nutritious enough” to Houston, where Mayor Annise Parker said, “making it easier for someone to stay out on the street is not humane,” and that registering with the city will help “spread resources farther.”
But many ministries and groups, including Food Not Bombs, have had to shut down their feeding programs or spend precious resources obtaining permits and food handler’s cards that could otherwise be spent on the actual food. Making it easier for the estimated 3.5 million people (one million of those are children) likely to experience homelessness in this country to stay out on the streets may not be compassionate, but taking away what few options still exist for survival, while failing to provide support for them getting off the streets, isn’t either.
The snowballing intrusion of government into every aspect of the lives of citizens, to the point where the state is now deciding what is “nutritious enough,” is obviously bad for democracy. It turns out it’s bad for poor people, too. Ultimately, these laws are really about swelling and maintaining a culture of intimidation and fear, not just of poor people — some ordinances include the directive that feeding sites must be 500 feet from each other and from residential properties — but of being poor, as if how much currency one is able to accumulate in life is the final say on one’s worth as a person. It is along these lines that we should be thinking about what actions to take to prevent this fear from driving law.
Seattle’s ban technically applies to feeding people in groups of more than five, but with 40,000 laws having passed at the beginning of 2012 alone, handing out food to individuals is not a guaranteed safe haven. Getting to know your city councilmembers by attending public meetings, going to events where they will be and, of course, writing them, may help curb this trend of regulating compassionate acts. Power of relationship is sometimes the one thing that sways. And this, incidentally, is also why giving that banana or the rest of your lunch to a person on the street remains more crucial than ever.