Above: Houston’s law allows groups and individuals to feed up to five homeless people, no strings attached. To feed more, though, one must register — or face fines up to $2,000 and a misdemeanor charge for violating the Houston Code of Ordinances.
On a recent evening in April, a few dozen people experiencing homelessness lined up outside Central Library in downtown Houston for a free — and illegal — meal of vegetarian chili, macaroni, rice and fruit salad. Volunteers with Food Not Bombs, an international organization with hundreds of local chapters, often serve free dinner here, violating a local ordinance against publicly feeding groups of people without city permission.
Houston’s so-called charitable-feeding ordinance was enacted in 2012 and allows groups and individuals to feed up to five homeless people, no strings attached. To feed more, though, you must register with the city — or face fines up to $2,000 and a misdemeanor charge for violating the Houston Code of Ordinances. Additionally, would-be do-gooders have to take a food handling training class; provide the proposed schedule, time and location of the ad-hoc soup kitchen; detail the food being served; and fill out an online form to receive permission from the city to give food in public.
On Monday, activists filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinance on First Amendment grounds. Food Not Bombs and three of its members are plaintiffs in the suit, filed against the City of Houston in the U.S. Southern District of Texas. The lawsuit accuses the city of infringing on freedom of speech and religious liberties of the anti-war, food-sharing activists. It asks Houston to overthrow the ban and seeks unspecified monetary damages.
The ordinance infringes on “freedom of association” and “political organizing” and is “unconstitutionally vague,” the lawsuit argues. It cites at least 19 pro-food-sharing verses from the Bible. Randall Kallinen, who has filed numerous civil rights lawsuits in Houston, is representing the activists. In interviews with the Observer, he described the ordinance as “totally ridiculous” and part of an effort to “get the homeless out of town.”
While the lawsuit adds to pressure against Houston, the effort to overturn the city’s ban is not new. A parallel lawsuit also involving Kallinen has been floundering in state district court since 2017, and over 75,000 people have signed an online petition calling for an end to the “cruel” ordinance.
Critics say the process is onerous and keeps volunteers from providing assistance to people in need. Houston officials who’ve supported the ordinance say it protects the people receiving food and doesn’t criminalize those providing it. “All we ask is that you be a good neighbor and coordinate” with the city, then-Mayor Annise Parker said in 2013 when an activist pressed her on the ban. “It doesn’t help the homeless to leave them on the streets.”
Mary Benton, a spokesperson for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said the city had not yet seen the lawsuit when asked about an hour after it was filed Monday, but pointed to the 2017 case being dismissed. When previously asked about that suit, Alan Bernstein, another spokesperson for Turner, expressed concern that “one person’s personal religious objection to an otherwise secular law can defeat the ordinance as a whole.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 25,000 Texans experienced homelessness on any given day in 2018. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the number of people without permanent housing in Houston rose after years of slow-but-steady decline, from around 3,500 in 2017 to over 4,000 last year, according to data from the Houston Coalition for the Homeless. But such populations are notoriously hard to track and often underreported.
That’s because of the irregular living situations in which many people experiencing homelessness find themselves, along with the varying definitions of what it means to be “homeless,” said Brett Merfish, director of youth justice at the advocacy group Texas Appleseed. “I can confidently say there’s an undercounting,” Merfish said of Texas homelessness counts particularly for children and young adults. “We have a persistent issue of homelessness that’s going unaddressed.”
Life has long been difficult for Houston’s homeless population. The city has recently been breaking up homeless encampments under freeways, most notably the one at the U.S. 59 underpass in Midtown. It’s also fighting panhandling with the mantra “Meaningful Change — Not Spare Change.” While a panhandling ban has been on the books since 1992, authorities have recently ramped up efforts to stop it, particularly in the upscale Galleria area.
The ordinance pits those who care for the homeless professionally against committed volunteers. When it was being considered by city council, a group of public-private do-gooders published an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle touting the ban as a way to make food-sharing more “efficient and effective … while at the same time protecting property rights.”
Arguments like these reflect an effort by established nonprofits to protect their funding, said Nick Cooper, a Food Not Bombs member. “You have to understand, there’s a somewhat symbiotic relationships between large nonprofits and city,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind that the law has had a chilling effect on volunteerism.”
Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, sees ordinances like Houston’s as part of a statewide and national effort to cast people without permanent housing into the shadows. Hustings, who opposes feeding bans, has studied these issues for over a decade and says there is “little to no evidence” of homeless people get sick from handouts or being served tainted food.
Kallinen, the lawyer, said his lawsuit is a textbook religious freedom case. In August, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals allowed a Food Not Bombs group in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to continue feeding the homeless (without explicitly overturning the city’s ban on doing so) after a lawsuit from the group and four members. Since the organization “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,’” its feeding activities are “protected by the First Amendment,” the court ruled.
Shere Dore, a Food Not Bombs activist and plaintiff, has been involved in legal challenges since 2017. You can find her most nights in front of Houston Central Library, giving out free vegetarian meals. Police don’t bother her much here; for a while, the city even described these Food Not Bombs meals as “approved” despite members consistently refusing to register in protest of the ordinance. But for Dore, who’s also a Black Lives Matter activist, the fight to legalize food-sharing is about more than bureaucracy. “I want to serve food wherever I feel like without having to worry about [police] officers,” she said. “A lot of other people want to serve, but they are literally too scared to come out.”