"Criminalizing the Samaritan": Why cities across the US are making it illegal to feed the homeless

Political and religious nonprofits are pushing back against the ordinances, saying they violate their rights

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 7, 2023 12:01PM (EDT)

Volunteer organizing donations in boxes wearing protective gloves (Getty Images/Hispanolistic)
Volunteer organizing donations in boxes wearing protective gloves (Getty Images/Hispanolistic)

Four days a week, volunteers from Food Not Bombs, an international organization that feeds those experiencing homelessness, serve up meals at the corner of Smith and McKinney streets in downtown Houston near the public library. They've kept up this routine for 20 years, but in March something changed. 

Police decided to start issuing citations to the group for "violating the city's Charitable Feeding Ordinance," an ordinance that has been on the books since 2012, but one which area volunteers say has never really been enforced. It requires both registered and non-registered food service operations to "obtain owner consent before using either public or private property for food service of more than five people." 

Since the spring, Food Not Bombs has continued their operations as usual, despite both police and the City of Houston demanding they move their set-up to Houston Police Department parking lot west of downtown, the only address that appears to be currently pre-approved for charitable food service events in the city on the city's website. Now, four times a week, the volunteers have to determine whose turn it is to receive the citation. 

Over the last six months, over 40 volunteers were cited and the Houston chapter of Food Not Bombs now owes the city $23,500 in fines. Eight of these cases were dismissed by judges due to insufficient evidence because the charging HPD officers did not show up to court — a ruling that captured national headlines last week —while another volunteer was found not guilty by a jury after they ruled the ordinance was unconstitutional. However, the City of Houston has now indicated they plan on refiling the cases that were dismissed without prejudice. 

"The City of Houston intends to vigorously pursue violations of its ordinance relating to feeding of the homeless," the city's attorney, Arturo Micnele, wrote in a statement. "It is a health and safety issue for the protection of Houston's residents. There have been complaints and incidents regarding the congregation of the homeless around the library, even during off hours." 

However, lawyer Paul Kubosh, who represented volunteer Phillip Picone, told KPRC 2 that the city's law was "absurd." 

"It's criminalizing the Samaritan for giving," he said. 

This isn't just a debate happening in Houston. Across the country, an increasing number of cities and municipalities are entertaining the idea of criminalizing feeding the hungry in certain instances, citing concerns over public safety, sanitation and the need to unify charitable efforts. Meanwhile, advocacy groups and religious organizations, as well as concerned citizens, are pushing back on laws they deem to be either unconstitutional or in violation of their personal rights. 

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In 2014, as the Associated Press reported, a 90-year-old WWII veteran, known by many in Fort Lauderdale as Chef Arnold, was arrested for serving meals in a public park — something he had been doing for nearly two decades. Three years later, seven people in Tampa were arrested for feeding the homeless without a permit. A year after that, 12 volunteers in El Cajon, California, were charged with misdemeanors for distributing food. 

Between 2013 and 2015, 26 cities passed food-sharing bans, according to reports from the National Coalition for the Homeless. Now, food security advocates estimate that there are 70 cities across the country — including Birmingham, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Newark and Salt Lake City — that have enacted food-sharing bans. 

"It's criminalizing the Samaritan for giving."

Officials from the cities that enforce these bans maintain that it's in the interest of public safety, for both housed and unhoused citizens. For instance, in Atlanta, after a volunteer was cited for feeding the hungry at a public park near Georgia State University, GSU police Sgt. Joseph Corrigan told local media that their main concerns are food safety, garbage and the human waste left behind when people are fed in a place with no restrooms. 

"I salute genuinely the good will and good nature of all these people," Corrigan said. "There is no bad guy in this." 

However, advocates for those experiencing homelessness push back on this argument, which they claim, in fact, criminalizes homelessness. 

"Of course sanitation is important, and of course public health is important," Maria Foscarinis, the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) told Newsweek in 2018. "But these issues can be addressed without banning sharing food with people who are hungry and people who are impoverished."

Some religious groups have asserted that feeding the hungry is an expression of their faith. Such was the case in a May 2023 incident when the City of Santa Ana threatened Micah's Way, a California religious nonprofit, with criminal charges for providing food and drink at their resource center. Micah's Way then sued the city for infringing on the nonprofit's right to religious exercise, a lawsuit that ultimately saw support from the Justice Department. 

"Many faith-based organizations across the country are on the front lines serving the needs of people experiencing homelessness," Assistant Attorney General Kristin Clark of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said in a statement. "The Justice Department is committed to enforcing federal civil rights laws to ensure that all religious groups can freely exercise their religious beliefs."

In the case of Food Not Bombs, in 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that — at least when it comes to the group's Fort Lauderdale chapter — distributing food to the homeless community was an expression of their First Amendment rights. 

"[Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs] does not serve food as a charity, but rather to communicate its message 'that [ ] society can end hunger and poverty if we redirect our collective resources from the military and war and that food is a human right, not a privilege, which society has a responsibility to provide for all,' " wrote Judge Adalberto Jordan in the federal appellate court opinion. "Providing food in a visible public space, and partaking in meals that are shared with others, is an act of political solidarity meant to convey the organization's message."

In Houston, the group plans to petition local leadership as well. According to Houston Public Media, the city's mayor, Sylvester Turner, is term-limited and exits office next year. 

"We have certainly plans to talk to the mayoral candidates Whitmire, Kaplan, Sheila Jackson Lee, about this issue," civil rights attorney Randall Kallinen told the station. "When you ever pull the populace or there's any indication from the general populace, it's overwhelmingly majority is against this law and the unanimous jury verdict is just another example of that."


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Food Insecurity Food Not Bombs Homelessness