In the United States, 21 cities have restricted sharing food with homeless people through legislation or community pressure since January 2013, and about 10 other cities are in the process of doing so, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) said in a report released Monday.
“One of the most narrow-minded ideas when it comes to homelessness and food-sharing is that sharing food with people in need enables them to remain homeless,” the report said.
The report was released a day before Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was set to vote “on the city’s third ordinance this year that will target the life-sustaining activities of people experiencing homelessness,” the NCH said in a news release.
“If the biggest crimes we had to worry about in this country were sitting, sleeping (in public places) and eating and sharing food, we would be in a freaking good state,” said Paul Boden, director of Western Regional Advocacy Project, the organization that launched the Homeless Bill of Rights campaign, an ongoing movement to introduce legislation in California and Oregon to "overturn local laws targeted to remove people from public space."
The NCH report outlines different means by which various jurisdictions allegedly restrict food-sharing. One is the passage of laws requiring a permit to distribute food in public places such as parks. Another is a requirement to “comply with stringent food-safety regulations,” the report said.
A third means — the “most difficult to measure,” according to NCH — involves community-level restrictions imposed by home-owners and businesses that do not want homeless people “in their backyard." This takes the form of pressuring food-distributing organizations to either stop their activities or to relocate their programs to other areas so that homeless people are not "attracted to their communities."
“Regardless of income and housing status, people are going to perform these activities (like sharing and eating food), but only a homeless person is going to see the inside of a jail cell for performing these activities,” Boden said, adding that local governments are passing laws that they know people are going to break.
One in six people struggle to get enough to eat in the United States, according to Feeding America, an organization that works toward hunger relief.
In a December 2013 Hunger and Homelessness Survey conducted by the United States Conference of Mayors, all but four of the 25 surveyed cities reported an increase in requests for emergency food assistance over the past year. Unemployment, low wages, poverty and housing costs were the leading reasons for hunger, according to the survey.
“In all of the responding cities, emergency kitchens and food pantries had to reduce the quantity of food persons could receive at each food pantry visit or the amount of food offered per-meal at emergency kitchens,” the survey said. “In 78 percent of these cities, they had to reduce the number of times a person or family could visit a food pantry each month.”
In its report, the NCH recommends that protections for the homeless be added to city, county or state anti-discrimination laws.
Hashem Said contributed to this report.