The Liberty to Feed the Poor

Across the United States, cities attempt to outlaw the most basic form of charity.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

On the night she was ticketed, Chef Joan Cheever's menu included fresh vegetable soup, lamb meatballs over wheat pasta, braised Southern greens, and a salad with roasted beets. She plans to appear in a San Antonio court to contest the $2,000 citation. Her offense: serving food to a line of grateful homeless people.

She's been donating similar meals every Tuesday for a decade. But neither the commercial kitchen where she prepares her food nor the licensed food handlers who serve it nor a food truck that meets all health codes nor her status as a local celebrity excused her apparent failure to obtain a special permit for giving away food free of charge. "Do Good Samaritans get tickets in San Antonio?" she asked the police officer who wrote her up, as she recalls the exchange. "Yes," he replied.

What makes the encounter a matter of national rather than local concern is the fact that it is not an anomaly. All over the United States, local governments are coercing individuals and organizations to stop helping their least-well-off neighbors. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported last year that at least 31 cities had restricted or banned food-sharing. The Washington Post offers examples: "Late last year, police in Fort Lauderdale busted a 90-year-old World War II veteran named Arnold Abbott twice in one week for feeding the homeless. In Raleigh, N.C., a church group said the cops threatened to arrest them if they served food to the homeless. And in Daytona Beach, Fla., authorities unsuccessfully levied $2000 in fines against six people for feeding the homeless at a park."

Baylen Linnekin of the Keep Food Legal Foundation has inveighed against attempts to ban food-sharing in Orlando, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, and Birmingham.

Although I find actual laws sanctioning this behavior as morally outrageous as anyone, I also understand the impulse for them in some jurisdictions. As a resident of a neighborhood with a lot of homeless people—Venice Beach, California—I can report that living near where the homeless are served can be trying. The bulk of people I've encountered living on the street are sympathetic and unfairly maligned. Many have been failed by society, among them veterans who aren't getting the medical attention to which they are entitled, mentally ill people who ought to have a bed and caregivers on hand, and folks who'd love a job but can't get one. But the presence of homeless people also means, at least in my neighborhood, the discovery of human waste in your back alley several times a month, petty drug dealers who scare parents with young kids away from the local playground, meth addicts who aggressively yell obscenities at women on the street, and people off their meds shouting violent threats or bigoted slurs at 3 a.m. I could move, of course. But I wouldn't condemn the resident of a hypothetical neighborhood from trying to force a food-sharing operation elsewhere if they couldn't move, felt their kids were threatened by a nightly or weekly influx of homeless people, and felt that they had no other option to protect them.

I would condemn government officials who used coercion to solve the problem. On a practical level, a city that takes sufficient measures to care for the destitute is one where the problem does not manifest with intensity in anyone's backyard. The complaints of residents ought to spur efforts to better address the needs of the neediest, not crackdowns against the moral heroes trying to make up for collective failures—especially since such people are almost always willing to voluntarily move from one location to another so long as the latter is as good or better for the poor.

And as a matter of political philosophy, those giving food to the poor cannot be stopped from doing so under any system that adequately respects the rights of individuals. Outlawing interpersonal charity is unjust, even if conservative NIMBYs and progressives comfortable with technocratic coercion ally to bring it about. Legally speaking, the Constitution affords a right to free association and assembly. Who will claim that it protects Neo-Nazis marching through Jewish neighborhoods but not a non-profit food-truck doling out hot meals to the destitute? There is a religious freedom defense, too—and it brings us back to Joan Cheever of San Antonio, who maintains, quite plausibly, that feeding the poor is a core part of how she practices her religion. As the Washington Post reported in its coverage:

... she’s considering filing a lawsuit against San Antonio on the ground that her religious freedom was violated, potentially setting religious freedom and local laws on another collision course. “I shouldn’t be the one on the hot seat here,” she said. “This is about every church group or individual who wants to serve a meal. It’s terrible to criminalize the poor, but it’s just as bad to say to the good Samaritans that you’re a criminal too. The Bible says, ‘When I was hungry, you fed me,’ and I take that seriously. This is the way I pray, and we’ll go to court on this.”

Traditionalist Christians should join libertarians in rallying behind her.

Throughout America, Christians have spoken out and raised more than a million dollars to defend the freedom of co-religionists to decline to serve food at same-sex-wedding receptions. While there has been heated debate about whether or not their faith truly requires such abstentions, there can be no doubt that the Christian imperative to feed the hungry is both explicit in the Gospel and central to Jesus' teachings.

Attempts to outlaw charity ought to outrage secularists too.

And a small coalition of religious and secular Americans from left, right, and center have raised enough, via a GoFundMe campaign, to cover the cost of Cheever's citation. Hopefully the judge who hears her case will agree that she need not secure the state's permission to render Tuscan Kale Caesar unto the poor.