No Soup for You! (If You’re Homeless and in a Public Park)

Continuing a troubling trend, a Raleigh group is threatened with arrest for attempting to give people breakfast.

(Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

Aug 30, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Every Saturday for the past six years, minister Hugh Hollowell and a group of neighbors have gathered to share a simple breakfast together. Hollowell’s Love Wins Ministries offers coffee and breakfast sandwiches to dozens of hungry people—many of them homeless or otherwise down on their luck—in Moore Square, in Raleigh, NC, “without cost or obligation.”

But on Saturday, August 24, Hollowell and his volunteers were greeted not only by an already-formed line of 70 friends, but also by members of the Raleigh Police Department. An officer told Hollowell that the group could not share the 100 biscuit sandwiches and gallons of coffee they had prepared and that, if they did, Hollowell would be arrested. Hollowell wrote about the incident on the Love Wins blog this week. The entry went viral and was picked up by The Huffington Post:

No representative from the Raleigh Police Department was willing to tell us which ordinance we broke, or why, after six years and countless friendly and cooperative encounters with the Department, they are now preventing us from feeding hungry people.

When I asked the officer why, he said that he was not going to debate me. “I am just telling you what is. Now you pass out that food, you will go to jail.”

This may sound like a fluke situation, but over the last decade, cities across the country have cracked down on issues involving the homeless, including feeding programs in public places. On the books, charity groups are told they are in violation of permitting ordinances. Hollowell wrote that his group had operated under the assumption that they could set up on the sidewalk near Moore Square, but not in the park, where they’d be required to pull two permits per weekend, costing $1,600. (Hollowell reported being told by police that the city likely wouldn’t have approved the permits anyway.)

The City of Orlando passed an ordinance restricting the number of permits that would be issued for any one park in a given year after neighbors complained about two homeless feeding programs that had sprung up. The groups that had been prohibited from serving food—Food Not Bombs and the First Vagabonds Church of God—took the city to court, saying feeding the homeless was a political act covered under the First Amendment. But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in April 2011 that Orlando was justified in restricting the feeding programs. Food Not Bombs continued to serve meals, however, resulting in the arrests of multiple volunteers before they made peace with Orlando’s mayor in August 2011.

And as TakePart reported last year, Houston passed a set of laws requiring groups to gain the city’s permission before serving food in city parks. In total, dozens of cities have either heavily regulated or altogether banned homeless feeding programs, a reality that has angered many activists in the food movement.

“Choosing to crack down on those who volunteer to feed the homeless is a bad idea,” wrote Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal, in a column for Reason.com last year. “It’s an even worse idea to seize on at a time when lots of people are hungry, food pantries are stretched beyond the breaking point, and increasing numbers of Americans are subsisting on food stamps.”

Linnekin, a lawyer, even thinks such bans—often enacted in the name of food safety or crowd control—are unconstitutional. He contends that they violate not only the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment, but also Americans’ Freedom of Assembly, “a First Amendment right that my own research has demonstrated is inextricably intertwined with the provision of food and drink,” he wrote last year.

The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union may have hit on the core principle at work, however, when it responded to a Philadelphia ban on feeding the homeless with the argument that such a law is “not to protect the health of the homeless but instead to protect the city’s image in a tourist area.”

It’s certainly hard to argue that these ulterior motives appear to be at work behind the scenes of the nationwide homeless crackdown.

The question remains, though: Will groups like Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh abide by their cities’ restrictions on charitable feeding? Hollowell says his group will obey the law from now on, despite the fact that Love Wins was offering the only two free weekend meals for homeless people in Raleigh. Still, he says they would love to make alternative arrangements so they can begin serving breakfast on the weekends again.

“We will feed people,” Hollowell writes. “I am, after all (however imperfectly), a follower of Jesus, who said himself that when we ignore hungry people, we ignore him.”