Cities Will Arrest You For Helping the Homeless

April 27th 2015

Ashley Nicole Black

Many U.S. cities are criminalizing homelessness by making it illegal to do things such as sleep outdoors or in cars, camp, beg, loiter, sit or lay down in public, and give away money or food. Some believe that outlawing these activities "de-incentivizes" being homeless. But, let's be real: Was there anything "incentivizing" about homelessness in the first place? Does anyone really believe that people with better options are giving up their homes because that soup kitchen food looks so good? Getting a ticket for sleeping outside has never magically made someone not homeless, it just means that now they have to break another law to beg for the money to pay for the fine in order to avoid jail.

Good Samaritans are being arrested.

Cities are going so far to criminalize homelessness that they are now fining and arresting people that help the homeless. Seventy-one cities now ban or restrict "food sharing" or feeding the homeless. Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old chef in Florida, has been cited and arrested three times, along with other volunteers and pastors he works with, for publicly serving food to the homeless. Even though he was facing jail time, he didn't stop providing hot meals to those in need. Abbott was told that he must either feed people inside or instead provide outdoor porta-potties, but he was unable to secure an indoor location or to afford a porta-potty rental so he continued doing what he could -- feeding people outdoors. Debbie and Chico Jimenez and their fellow volunteers have also been fined in Florida for feeding the homeless, but the charges were dropped by police.

Joan Cheever, a chef in Texas, was fined $2,000 for feeding the homeless out of her licensed, up-to-health-code, food truck. She has been doing this once a week for the past ten years. Cheever, who is also a lawyer, is fighting the charge by arguing that the law violates her religious freedom. Feeding the hungry is a cornerstone tenet of the Christian religion, and Cheever likens her charity work to prayer. She believes that attempts to stop her from cooking for and serving the homeless are akin to stopping her from praying.

Homelessness is not just a cosmetic problem.

Often, police officers arrest or fine Good Samaritans because local residents complain about the problems that accompany living near homeless people (crowding, noise, a lack of bathroom facilities, a mess, witnessing the behavior of people with mental illness issues, etc.). While these are cosmetic problems that affect residents, they are also real problems that affect the quality of life of homeless people. Rather than move homeless people out of the area so residents don't have to see their suffering (which of course, only serves to move them into another community), cities should instead focusing on actually alleviating their suffering by making sure that there are enough beds and shelters for mentally ill people, providing more public restrooms, finding safe places for homeless people to eat, and implementing housing programs. Laws that instead punish the homeless and those who would serve them makes it seem like cities are more interested in making sure that no one has to see the homeless suffering than they are in actually alleviating that suffering.