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Despite Outrage, City Council Passes Restriction on Feeding the Homeless

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Update: I was in error. As wise readers alerted me, the ordinance discussed in the original post below applies to all of Houston, not just the central business district. Also: stay tuned for news on the petition drive opposing the ordinance.

For over a month, angry Houstonians have pummeled City Council with questions about why the mayor is trying to severely restrict feeding the homeless. Of the many answers offered, the most honest came on Tuesday afternoon, during the Council’s third multi-hour session of public comment. Sandra McMasters, general manager of the downtown Spaghetti Warehouse, spoke in support of the ordinance, which would require anyone feeding more than five homeless people at a time to first obtain written permission from the property owner, including the city in the case of public areas. She said her restaurant had been negatively affected by its proximity to an overpass where charitable groups often feed the homeless, causing a semi-permanent encampment with attendant “aggressive panhandling,” for which she often called the cops, and potential customers having “to walk past the smell of urine and feces.”

“I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t with my customers,” she said. Some of them want to help the homeless and some of them, she said, “It’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing.”

The crowd booed. The overwhelming majority of speakers had opposed the ordinance, and they hailed from the whole political spectrum. The Food Not Bombs kids had alternated with tea partiers and clergy. Homeschooling moms, immigrants’ rights activists and several of the formerly homeless decried the new rules as an enemy of freedom, goodness, and the American Way. So why didn’t the mayor drop the rules after the first few hours of public outcry?

Ms. McMasters told us why, though she may not have meant to: visibility. The homeless ordinance, which was originally presented with a host of other stipulations and justified as, among other things, protecting the homeless from food poisoning, was really about visibility. Offering food to groups of homeless people encourages grouping, and groups are harder to ignore than individuals, even when their clothes match the color of the pavement.

The proof is in the ordinance’s evolution. The original, brought by Mayor Annise Parker, was elaborate. It required those who would feed the homeless to register with the city, prepare the meal in a commercial kitchen, serve it within four hours of preparation, have a member of their group take a food safety class, and leave serving areas as clean as they were found. The registration, she said, was intended to promote coordination and prevent waste, “so that churches, for example, don’t show up on top of each other trying to feed the same group of 20 guys,” Parker said when the ordinance was first presented in early March. The food service standards were to make sure the homeless weren’t fed less safely than restaurant diners. The original ordinance, it’s worth noting, was supported by the largest local groups who feed the homeless, including Star of Hope and SEARCH Homeless Services. But smaller groups, churches, and many individuals questioned the reasoning, asking for data on the rash of food poisonings among the homeless that must have prompted mayoral action.

In response, Parker made all elements of the ordinance voluntary except the securing of written permission by the property owner, and lowered the fine from violations from up to $2000 to up to $500. When opponents pointed out that trespassing was already illegal, making the ordinance redundant, the mayor countered that she was providing a lesser penalty than a trespassing arrest. Still, the justification didn’t satisfy.

So it was almost a relief to see the ordinance amended and passed yesterday, stripped of pretense, making perfectly plain what and for whom it really was. The amended ordinance, which takes effect July 1st, still demands that those who would feed the homeless first get written permission from the property owner—but it only applies to the central business district.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.