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Food Feud: More Cities Block Meal-Sharing for Homeless

Image:meal hosted by the LA Mission

The homeless on Skid Row are seated for the annual Good Friday meal hosted by the LA Mission and served by volunteers and celebrities on April 18, 2014 in Los Angeles, Calif. FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP - Getty Images

More American cities are blocking individuals and ministries from feeding homeless people in parks and public squares, and several Americans have been ticketed for offering such charity, according to a forthcoming report by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

To date, 33 cities have adopted or are considering such food–sharing restrictions, according to the coalition, which shared with NBC News a draft of its soon-to-be published study.

Police in at least four municipalities – Raleigh, N.C.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Daytona Beach, Fla. – have recently fined, removed or threatened to jail private groups that offered meals to the homeless instead of letting government-run service agencies care for those in need, the advocacy group reports.

“Homeless people are visible in downtown America. And cities think by cutting off the food source it will make the homeless go away. It doesn’t, of course,” said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, based in Washington, D.C.

“We want to get cities to quit doing this,” Stoops said. “We support the right of all people to share food.”

NBC News has chronicled the legal battle waged by a Florida couple, Debbie and Chico Jimenez, who had cooked and served hot meals to homeless people each Wednesday for the past year at a Daytona Beach park. The couple and four friends were cited by police and collectively fined by more than $2,000 for violating a local ordinance that prohibits such public feedings. The ticketed six refused to pay. On Wednesday, Daytona Beach police opted to dismiss the fines.

Image: Debbie and Chico Jimenez, who run a ministry to help people in poverty
Debbie and Chico Jimenez, who run a ministry to help people in poverty, were were ticketed last week $373 a piece (along with four other people) for feeding about 100 homeless people at a Daytona Beach Park. Courtesy of Debbie and Chico Jimenez

“The reason these laws are growing across the country is that not enough people are standing up for their God-given rights,” Chico Jimenez said. “And we have a right. We can feed anybody without the law stepping in.”

Daytona Beach offers a clear view of this muddy issue – two sides, two distinct arguments. Jimenez asserts citizens have the authority, if not an obligation, to provide an occasional, nutritious meal to folks in need, and that everyone should share the parks. Daytona Beach leaders argue that the couple’s work worsens homelessness by coaxing impoverished people away from centralized, city-run programs, and they complain that during the couple’s feedings some homeless people mistreated the park and frightened other patrons.

In January, Volusia County (home of Daytona Beach) contracted with Robert Marbut, a national homeless consultant, to assess that city’s problems and suggest solutions – as he’s done in some 60 other towns, according to his website, including St. Petersburg, Fla., Fresno, Calif., and Fort Smith, Ark. He bills each community about $5,900 for his analysis and ideas, he said.

Marbut advised the Volusia County Council that centralized, 24/7 programs that treat the three root causes of homelessness – a lack of jobs, mental illnesses and chronic substance abuse – have been shown to reduce local homeless populations by 80 percent.

But Marbut does not favor any ordinances that criminalize helping the homelesses, he said. (Daytona Beach passed its anti-feeding law before the Jimenezes were fined).

“I prefer changing a community’s culture through a dialogue,” said Marbut, who is based in San Antonio, Texas. “You’re never going to get anywhere arresting priests, pastors and imams in the street."

But he also cringes at the notion of lone ministries independently launching food-sharing programs without coordinating with other churches or with local charity agencies, he said.

“Give me a name of one person who got a job because they were fed. Feeding alone, or giving out clothing or camping equipment, does not address the core issues of being homeless,” Marbut said. “You don’t graduate from the street because you ate a Big Mac tonight."

In the Bay Area city of Hayward, Calif., officials enacted a homeless-feeding ordinance in February that carries some of those gentle nuances – a nod that this is hardly a black-and-white problem.

People or groups seeking to feed the homeless in Hayward first must obtain a health department permit to show their fare is safely prepared and served. After that, they can apply for a food-sharing permit. But those individuals still are restricted as to the number of times in a week or a month that they can provide free food at the same location on a public property.

“We found the food sharing itself was not necessarily the issue but there was a host of ancillary behaviors when people gathered after the food sharing,” said Kelly McAdoo, assistant city manager in Hayward. “They would drink heavily, use the public park as a restroom facility, and people would get in fights. Other people would feel intimidated, wouldn’t fee comfortable coming to these parks.”

The idea isn’t to ban outdoor feeding, she said, but to regulate it so that there are clear boundaries on bad acts.

“It’s really a conundrum because we have to look out for everyone, not just one segment of population. Most of us got into local government to help people. We are compassionate,” McAdoo said.

“But it’s a touchy subject. The United States is a very wealthy country and to not provide for those who are less fortunate is something about which a lot of people feel very passionate.”