Criminalizing the Hands That Feed the Homeless
More cities are trying to stop residents and food pantries from helping people secure a hot meal.
On Wednesday, Fort Lauderdale, Florida became the latest American city to pass a measure restricting food distribution to the homeless, part of a growing trend in the country over the past several years.
The measure, whose passage elicited protests from outraged residents, prohibits feeding sites from operating within 500 feet of each other or 500 feet from any residential area. But while the prohibition isn't total, the restriction reflects a belief that homeless people are better served in facilities that also provide mental health and drug rehabilitation services.
"Street feeding is one of the worst things you can do, because it keeps people in homeless status," Robert Marbut, a consultant who advises cities on homelessness, told NPR.
But opponents of these restrictions argue that such comprehensive facilities are insufficient in helping the homeless. Then there's the issue of punishment: Do cities really want to punish individuals for the crime of feeding hungry people? Earlier this year, a couple in Daytona Beach, Florida were fined a total of $746 and banned from a city park after violating a city ordinance against providing the homeless with free food.
The National Coalition on the Homeless released a report on Monday arguing that having access free food does not incentivize the homeless to remain on the street.
"With all of the existing barriers that prevent individuals from finding work, earning an adequate wage, affording a safe home and caring for themselves, remaining homeless is rarely a choice at all," the report said.
The authors noted that since 2013, 21 cities have restricted the feeding of the homeless and another ten cities are in the process of doing the same. Overall, the study noted that there has been a 47 percent increase in the number of cities that have pursued the restriction of food sharing since 2010.
One key factor is storage. Because the homeless must carry their possessions with them at all times, performing certain tasks—such as a job interview—become impossible. Cities like Seattle and San Jose have experimented with providing city-funded lockers to the homeless, but securing funding for these programs is not easy.
Estimating the number of people who live on the street in the United States is not easy, as many remain on the street for only a short amount of time. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that, on any given night, 610,000 Americans experience homelessness. Of this number, about 18 percent are considered "chronically homeless."