The Houston City Council found itself in a firestorm over just how charitable groups will be able to feed the homeless after Mayor Annise Parker proposed changes to a city ordinance that requires groups to do the following: register with the city; complete food handlers training courses; prepare food in licensed kitchens; and require a cleanup plan following food service. The proposal also limits the feeding of homeless to be limited to three designated public parks.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the City Council heard two hours of heated testimony over the proposed changes on Tuesday. Part of the uproar centered on proposed penalties for violations, which are considered a misdemeanor and can result in fines of $50-$2,000.
In a press conference yesterday, the Mayor said the proposed changes are designed to encourage the various charitable agencies to coordinate with one another, and to become more efficient in providing food for the city’s estimated 18,000 homeless residents.
It’s also about the trash.
“You’d think that you wouldn’t have to say to an agency involved in feeding the homeless that you really have to stick around long enough to pick up the trash, but you do, and you have to say it over and over again,” said Mayor Parker.
Rasuali Bray, spokesman for Houston Councilwoman Helena Brown tells TakePart they consider the changes a regulation of benevolence.
“The truth is, all this came from property owners complaining about trash. It’s a litter problem. Not a homeless problem,” says Bray.
For now, the proposed changes have been tagged, and will come before the City Council again March 21.
It’s not the first time the feeding of homeless in public parks grew contentious. Last year in Orlando, the group Food Not Bombs created a stir when members were arrested for providing food in public parks without proper permitting required by the city, which limited those gatherings to twice a year, per park, per group. The issue eventually went before the courts and was upheld, says Orlando city spokesperson Heather Fagan.
“Afterwards, we had a dialogue with them, and invited them to serve food in front of city hall,” Fagan says. “Since then, the issue has died down.”
Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal, says if it’s an issue of littering, then perhaps it’s also about discrimination.
“There are plenty of places where trash is left behind, like marathons and sporting events. The city of Houston is discriminating against a group that’s already disenfranchised and doesn’t have the means to fight back,” says Linnekin.
Civil rights lawyer Randall Kallinen tells the Houston Chronicle that the proposed rules “are an assault on freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of speech.” But Linnekin says there’s an important omission there.
“The one he doesn’t mention is the most glaring: freedom of assembly. People have the right to come together, certainly to share food.”