Biting The Hands That Feed
“When a poor person dies of hunger it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.”
(Following is a paper written by Lia for a class at Cal State East Bay on being penalized for serving homeless people and her experiences volunteering as a Martha)
More and more cities across America are taking both moderate and extreme measures` to solve the issue of homelessness. Many cities have attempted to pass ordinances that restrict people from feeding the homeless in public in an effort to reduce homelessness. At least 21 cities so far have been successful in instating such ordinances, but then the questions of legality, morality, and practicality must be asked. How does illegalizing feeding the homeless benefit the city, if it does at all, and how does it affect citizens? Arrests, citations, fines, and lawsuits have already gone underway since cities began banning food sharing. However, homelessness has yet to be diminished.
One of the first cities to ban food sharing in public is Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Arnold P. Abbott, a ninety year-old activist, was arrested twice for feeding the homeless at the beach. Abbot along with a pastor were arrested and faced with a five hundred dollar fine and sixty days jail time. When questioned about the ordeal Abbot said, “One of the police officers said, ‘drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon…It’s man’s inhumanity to man is all it is.” The city of Fort Lauderdale claims that the reason for such an ordinance is based on the idea that if people feed the hungry and homeless the recipients will become dependent and will be less likely to break the cycle of homelessness. A similar occurrence transpired in Manchester, New Hampshire when churchgoers were prohibited from feeding the homeless at a local park. Instead of being arrested they were fined and received citations.
There are multiple measures to which cities go to in order to restrict food distribution to the hungry and homeless. Laws are disguised as regulations that prevent littering, loitering, and provide public safety. The two main forms of restrictions are in the sort of public property rules and food safety regulations. These would be manifested into regulations that restrict feeding on public property, limit the number of people who are allowed to be fed, create new food safety restrictions, and influence police harassment that is meant to deter people from feeding or arriving to be fed. In Raleigh, North Carolina feeding the homeless will cost a good samaritan about $1,600 dollars per weekend to pay for temporary permits. Therefore making feeding those in need practically impossible.
Another city that has been under the microscope regarding feeding the homeless is Charlotte, North Carolina. However, it isn’t local government imposing restrictions and pressuring people to limit food distribution, its community groups that practice “Not In My Backyard”, or NIMBY, politics. These groups pose threats to homeless feeding out of fear that it will decrease their property value or have adverse affects on their lifestyles. These groups along with others represent one side of the battle for common space that has been ongoing throughout history. It is a battle that has long been based on racial and economic inequality and social alienation; the objective was and is to make the “undesirables” vanish from the world of the privileged. It is the product of decades of class struggles and political efforts meant to manage economic disruptions that have greatly impacted the modern welfare estate.
The economy itself is one of the main factors that not only contribute towards the causation of homelessness, but the criminalization of the homeless. The political-economic crises have increased the marginality and impoverishment of workers and have contributed to the slowly growing phenomenon of homelessness. As the economic crises deepens in America so does the hardships associated with the rapid introduction of technology and division of labor that can result in the increase in numbers of the poor and homeless. The poor and homeless are the most visible victims of economic hardships and transitions. The homeless are representatives of a “dangerous class” that is held liable for societal ills such as poverty, disease, and crime. When discussing how society is currently dealing with the homeless Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, says “Cities have grown tired of the problem, so they think by criminalizing homelessness they’ll get rid of the visible homeless populations.”
If it is true that history repeats itself the treatment of the homeless and how the government reacts to homelessness is a poignant example. In the early 14th and 15th century of England, the bourgeoisie successfully criminalized the homeless. They were criminally sanctioned for vagrancy, idleness, and migrating. Much like the lobbyists and other political leaders that support the banning of food distribution to the homeless, the bourgeoisie blamed the individuals instead of the structural circumstances. One lobbyist, Ron Brook, explained “Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness. Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing.” This mind frame insinuates that the homeless are choosing to be homeless and that they are in fact hedonistic. Robert Marburt, a San Antonio based consultant, referred to street feeding as, “one of the worst things to do, because it keeps people in homeless status…[He} thinks it’s very unproductive, very enabling, and it keeps people out of recovery programs.”
Essentially, the basis of banning the act of food distribution to the homeless is a “tough love” plot to force the homeless out of their “self-imposed cycle” which in turn will decrease the rate of homelessness and better the entire community. Surprisingly, the notion that maybe it isn’t self-imposed has yet to be considered by those attempting to restrict the feeding of those in need. Los Angeles, for instance, is one of the cities that have introduced restrictions on feeding the homeless without completely outlawing the act. Punk Rock Marthas, a non-profit “guerilla philanthropist” organization volunteers to serve food to the homeless monthly in Downtown Los Angeles on Skid Row. I myself am a member of the non-profit organization and volunteer regularly. Whilst serving those that enter the St. Francis Center on Saturday mornings, I had the pleasure to converse with the poor, homeless, and poverty stricken recipients. Many of whom explained that it is not a choice that they cannot afford to feed themselves. It is more often than not a series of unfortunate events that led them to their current state whether that is unemployment due to the economic disruptions, rejection of veteran benefits upon returning from war, inability to retain employment due to physical disability, or many other misfortunes.
The illegalization of feeding the homeless and the criminalization of the homeless are laws without morals. When determining the basis of moral laws, there are two types of laws. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the difference between just and unjust laws in his infamous letter from Birmingham Jail. The letter was geared toward addressing social injustices forced upon the minority in a racially segregated America. The parallel between racial injustice and social injustice is apparent, in the way that there are unjust laws that legalize social and racial inequality. Dr. King explained that, “a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God.” Whereas, “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law…an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.” When a majority forces a minority to follow a law that does not apply to itself, then it is acting unjustly. It is legalizing the “difference” between people. Therefore, those that are of high social and economic standing are the majority and the homeless, in this case, are the minority. Those like Arnold Abbot, Punk Rock Marthas, and the Manchester churchgoers felt a moral obligation to break the laws that are unjust.
The United States of America is experiencing a rapid growth in the amount of homeless people that inhabit this nation. Passing ordinances that make it so hard to eat that they will have to move will not solve the issue of homelessness. That would just make them another city’s issue. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has proposed multiple, more just, solutions. One solution, for example, is investment in homeless programs that have proven to end homelessness, and provide resources to fully implement the HEARTH Act, which will significantly improve the outcomes of federal spending. However, it seems as though much of America has decided that the current “solution” will be to make it a crime to give a person what he or she needs. Much of America has decided it will put forth effort into moving the homeless rather than helping.
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