Feeding Frenzy

Anti-poverty activists and city officials knock heads over feeding the homeless

| August 10, 2006

Last month, Las Vegas enacted a city ordinance banning the feeding of homeless people in public parks. The edict put the mecca of endless buffets in rank with a host of other US cities that have passed regulations dictating where, or whether, groups may assemble to feed the hungry. Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Patrik Jonsson lists off examples across the country: Orlando has banned mobile food programs from setting up in nearly half its city parks; Dallas pushed such programs out of its downtown parks; and meal volunteers have been chased out of parks in Atlanta.

More and more, activists trying to provide decent meals to the homeless find themselves relocated to cities' fringes, which are proving less accessible than downtown areas. Opponents of the bans declare that constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and assembly are being violated. For their part, city officials claim feeding programs 'lure the homeless away from the public-health providers and shelters that can provide long-term solutions.' Donna Friedman, director of the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, doubts such claims, telling Jonsson that the bans 'speak more to cities trying to hide the problem of homelessness rather than effectively deal with it.'

Catherine Komp, writing for the New Standard, suggests that feeding bans are the most recent step in a series of laws aiming to push homeless people out of sight and out of mind. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) found that begging, panhandling, and loitering laws have increased between 12 to 18 percent nationally in the last four years. San Francisco even implemented a program called 'Homeward Bound' that gave one-way bus tickets to nearly 1,000 homeless people to leave town. This 'big battle' in America's downtowns, says Michael Stoops, acting executive director of NCH, is being fueled by business interests.

Some groups are stepping up for the fight. In another piece for the New Standard, Komp reports that the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has filed a suit on behalf of Food Not Bombs, a grassroots program serving vegetarian meals in parks across the country. The suit claims that the law 'violates constitutional rights to free speech, free exercise of religion, free assembly, due process of law, and equal protection under the law.' Food Not Bombs and other anti-poverty groups aren't the only ones affected by the bans. Religious groups say the regulations are preventing them from fulfilling their holy mission. The ACLU of Florida is considering filing a similar suit against the city of Orlando on religious grounds. Orlando City Commissioner Robert Stuart tells Komp that the ordinance 'appears to criminalize the good-hearted behavior of thousands in our community who have supported those that our city has either ignored or disregarded.'

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