November 17, 2014
This week is national “Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.” The recent arrests of several activists in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, over public outdoor meals served to people experiencing homelessness has brought homelessness to the fore of media coverage in recent weeks. This year, Fort Lauderdale passed a series of restrictions aimed at moving feeding sites indoors. These include requirements that all feeding sites have toilet facilities and that any feeding sites be located at least 500 feet away from each other. These new regulations were passed in response to residents’ complaints about crowds of homeless people in public parks. The Fort Lauderdale’s Women’s Club was a particularly vocal supporter of the restrictions, telling Mayor Jack Seiler that the use of one park as a site for feeding people in need made it problematic for them to hold weddings and yoga classes.
Fort Lauderdale is not alone in criminalizing the public provision of food to people facing hunger. In the spirit of raising “awareness” during “Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week,” I want to share with you some information about where restrictions on serving meals have been implemented and what the restrictions are.
The passage of laws making it more difficult, or even impossible, to serve public meals to people was first brought to my attention when my colleague shared this article from National Public Radio with me. My interest was further piqued and motivation to put together this blog post heightened when, a few days later, the sidebar of my Facebook timeline informed me that the arrests in Fort Lauderdale were “trending.”
A report cited in the NPR article mentioned above, compiled by the National Coalition for the Homeless and just released in October called “Share No More: The Criminalization of Efforts to Feed People in Need” provides an overview of laws enacted during 2013-2014 throughout the United States. These laws are categorized in several ways: restrictions on public property use, food safety regulations and community actions to relocate food-sharing events. The report also notes cities that repealed laws of these sorts during the last year, and places that attempted to pass laws but failed. I invite you to read the report for yourself in order to gain a full understanding of the regulations at hand and investigate whether your community imposed or repealed any restrictions.
Looking ahead, homelessness promises to be an issue that continues to demand the attention of federal, state and local governments, as well as non-profit and social ministry organizations. Just last week, Community Solutions, a national organization whose tagline indicates their mission toward “strengthening communities” and “ending homelessness”announced a new campaign to end veteran and chronic homelessness in the next two years. The campaign, called “Zero: 2016” will launch in January 2015 in 67 communities across the country. Many of these communities, listed in the press release, overlap with the communities imposing restrictions on meal programs. The “Zero: 2016” campaign is an attempt to accelerate housing efforts, connect people experiencing homelessness with available housing options and create public accountability around the issue of chronic homelessness.
ELCA World Hunger is a comprehensive approach to recognizing and fighting the root causes of poverty and hunger in our communities near and far. One takeaway from my time with the ELCA World Hunger team so far is that we are each a piece of a puzzle and all of the pieces are needed in order to make a dent in hunger and poverty. Yes, we need to change societal structure to eliminate homelessness through more accessible job programs, education and supportive housing, and more robust welfare programs. This is, in fact, the stated goal of many laws against feeding people who are homeless. Meals, some argue, create dependency and do little to help people gain access to long-term financial independence.
But we also need to support people who are suffering now. I believe we are called to be advocates of both serving meals to those who are hungry and finding ways to prevent hunger and homelessness moving forward. People who are hungry have a need for food, yet laws such as these are also borne out of need, such as residents’ safety. What does it say about who is part of a community when some neighbors are treated as threats to safety or decorum? How are we called to balance different needs within a community?
Gina Tonn is a Program Assistant for ELCA World Hunger through the Lutheran Volunteer Corps.