Proposed Regulations on the Feeding the Homeless

Tomorrow, March 7, 2012, Houston City Council will take up a proposed ordinance to regulate feeding the homeless.  According to the Houston Chronicle (see here), Mayor Annise Parker’s administration said that it will “prevent food from going to waste, protect the homeless from food poisoning and allergic reactions and curtail the trail of trash left behind where feeders meet the fed.”

The new ordinance, if passed, will:
• “Limit feeding of the homeless on public property to Tranquillity Park, Peggy’s Point Plaza Park and a park on Chartres Street just north of Minute Maid Park. Written authorization of the property owner would be required for feedings on private property.
• Require feeding organizations to register with the city and to take a food safety training class.
• Require that the food be served within four hours of preparation (or removal from temperature control).
• Mandate that the feeding site be left “in a clean, waste-free, litter-free condition.
• Make violations a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $50 to $2,000.”

Although many people are outraged by this proposal, this isn’t the first time that the city has taken on the homeless.  You might remember that in 2005, former Mayor Bill White made huge changes as well.  He encouraged people to give money and food to organizations rather than directly to the homeless, and he launched a campaign to let the homeless know that depending on donations on the street would no longer be an option.  The biggest change he made, however, was his ordinance that prevents anyone from standing in the middle of the street (or walking in the middle of the street) to collect donations. This is now Article V, Sec. 36-74 Solicitation on Public Streets. Then in August 2011, Mayor Parker amended the Aggressive Panhandling Ordinance (Article I, sec. 28-46).  It originally prohibited panhandling within 8 feet of ATMs, pay phones, parking meters, or parking fee collection boxes.  The ordinance was amended to include outdoor dining establishments.

Despite efforts from both mayors, I have only noticed only small changes in the number of homeless people I see in the middle of the street or at outdoor restaurants.  What makes this new ordinance different is that it targets those trying to help rather than those being helped.  The reason behind this change is probably that takes a long time and lots of effort to notify the homeless of new laws whereas charities and people who are used to giving out food will hear about it right away.  Regardless of how easily they will be able to get the message out, I don’t think that this is the right message to send out.  Yes, it is true that some homeless people have food allergies.  Yes it is true that there might be litter associated with the current system, and yes, there is a huge lack of coordination among the homeless in the current system.  But, no, this is not the way to solve it.

The problem with having three sites to disperse food comes with two major problems: 1. If the homeless had the means (and unfortunately sometimes the mental capacity) to get around Houston easily, they would likely go to shelters or other locations already in place that hands out food. 2. For argument’s sake, let’s say they are able to concentrate the homeless to these three areas.  This will become a mecca for crime and deterioration.  I’m not saying that homeless people commit crime.  Rather, businesses in the area will suffer when people are too scared to go to these locations.  The area will start to go downhill, and then crime will begin.  We have seen this time and time again.

Does the city really expect people to give out food and then monitor the homeless person as they eat it to make sure that there is no trash left behind?  Does the city really expect people to take food safety training classes??  I think ultimately the intention behind this ordinance was good.  They want an organized, safe, trash-free way of feeding people, but I just don’t see this as the best way to do it.

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3 Responses to Proposed Regulations on the Feeding the Homeless

  1. Amy,

    I agree with you on all points. Your post enlightened me to that fact that there will only be 3 locations. You noted the new ordinance would: “Limit feeding of the homeless on public property to Tranquility Park, Peggy’s Point Plaza Park and a park on Chartres Street just north of Minute Maid Park. This would address the homeless and food distribution in the immediate area of downtown, but does nothing for other areas in the city. Houston is the 4th largest city in the country. I’m not sure of your homeless population count, but I suspect it is substantial. So, this will force any individuals or organizations to vie for position and time to distribute food. This will also cause fines to be automatic in any other location in the city. Downtown Houston could become the mecca for crime you mentioned. There is no doubt the “location” restrictions will cause inevitable chaos. Only with revisions would I like to see the ordinance passed. Your thoughts?

  2. Dylan Osborne says:

    There is a mechanism in the ordinance that allows for more sites as needed. Another important point is the food handlers classes would be free. This is not a perfect ordinance, but it is not as bad as a lot of folks are making it out to be. This is not an attack on churches, or on the homeless.

  3. Eric Weinmann says:

    Most of the provisions in the ordinance are now voluntary. The new ordinance which will come up for vote next week does a good job protecting private property owners and the taxpayer from having to pay for clean up and liability. Currently, the taxpayer spends an upper six figure number cleaning up after homeless food service. Many private property owners, such as Advantage BMW, lose business and spend large sums as well. The ordinance will ensure consent from property owners. Under Texas law, it is the homeless who would be guilty of trespassing, making the rule change necessary. In a city where the homeless can be found talking on cell phones while having a beer and smoking cigarettes, I wonder if the surplus of food brought to downtown, East End and Midtown lots only encourages homelessness.

    Unfortunately, a sizable number of individuals engaged in homeless feeding, including OWS, are not interested in property rights, sanitation, wasted food or positive healthy interactions with the homeless. Many homeless have severe mental illness and/or narcotics dependency. The safety of all involved is jeopardized when individuals engage the homeless for the sake of it without training.

    While I agree the original version was too draconian, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we want to help the homeless, not egos. It seems the most vocal opponents forget this.

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