Houston volunteers face thousands in fines for feeding homeless

<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

Volunteers with a group that has been feeding Houston’s unhoused population since 1994 are facing a potential $80,000 in fines after a crackdown by local police.

Food Not Bombs is currently disputing 44 tickets issued by Houston police department for giving food to homeless individuals outside of the Houston Public Library. If a jury finds them guilty, they can be fined the maximum penalty of $2,000 per fine, with the group noting they could owe over $80,000 in fines at this point.

Related: ‘Criminalizing kindness’: US woman arrested for feeding homeless people sues

The fines stem from a city ordinance passed in 2012 mandating that groups get permission from property owners, even if on public property, to distribute food to more than five people. The ordinance was never enforced, according to the group, until recently. A petition to rescind the law was signed by more than 75,000 people and submitted to the Houston city council in 2015.

Nick Cooper, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs, criticized the impact that the anti-food-sharing law has had on food-sharing services for the homeless and that the time and effort fighting the citations is having on volunteers.

“We’re just going into court sitting there all morning, and then they reschedule us, and then we come back, and they reschedule us, having to take days off of work. This is getting into 40 different jury trials that we’re trying to get, so it’s really taking up a lot of our time,” said Cooper. “The problem is that the law is such a bad law, because it has had a chilling effect on people sharing food, in general.”

He noted this anti-food-sharing law was just one of many laws enacted to criminalize homelessness.

“They can’t have a big box, they can’t have a tent, they can’t sleep here, they can’t be lying down between these hours. There are all kinds of anti-homeless laws,” added Cooper.

It’s the latest standoff between homeless advocates and a city over laws criminalizing homelessness.

In October 2022, 78-year-old Norma Thornton filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to an anti-food-sharing ordinance in Bullhead City, Arizona, after she was arrested for feeding the homeless. The charges were later dropped but the lawsuit is ongoing.

Food Not Bombs volunteers filed a similar lawsuit against the City of Houston for their anti-food-sharing ordinance in March 2023, with the hopes of receiving a similar ruling.

The Houston mayor’s office claimed the changes were due to security concerns and that alternative feeding locations had been provided. Food Not Bombs criticized that change of location because it’s next to a police station a mile away.

Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner: ‘We have a few too many homeless folk and feeding programs in front of Central Houston.’
Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner: ‘We have a few too many homeless folk and feeding programs in front of Central Houston.’ Photograph: Reuters

“We’re going to retake the downtown central library to make it more wholesome and inviting to families and to kids,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “That is a major asset of the city of Houston. We have a few too many homeless folk and feeding programs in front of Central Houston.”

The Houston city attorney, Arturo Michel, added in a statement: “The City of Houston intends to vigorously pursue violations of its ordinance relating to feeding of the homeless. It is a health and safety issue for the protection of Houston’s residents. There have been complaints and incidents regarding the congregation of the homeless around the library, even during off hours. No municipality prevails in every prosecution of a category of violations. Houston prevailed in the first matter and expects to do so in several others.”

Food Not Bombs volunteer Shere Dore has received 15 of the 43 citations issued against volunteers for feeding the homeless in Houston. Dore has been volunteering to feed the homeless with the group for 12 years.

She criticized the citations and rhetoric from the mayor’s office and asserted all volunteers will be pleading not guilty and seeking to contest the citations through jury trials.

“We believe in our constitutional right to serve people who are hungry on tax-paid public property without government permission. If we have to start asking our government if we can feed people, we have serious problems in society,” said Dore.

Dore said the ongoing threat of citations during the dangerous heatwaves that have hit Texas add a layer of cruelty toward the homeless. In July 2023, the city shut down the downtown Houston library as a cooling center during a declared heat emergency, with the city citing safety concerns.

“The downtown library is the only closest cooling center for unhoused people,” she said. “Yes, the mayor has offered other locations outside of downtown but when heat is soaring to 100 degrees fahrenheit with a feel of 110 degrees fahrenheit, who really wants to walk that kind of distance?”

She explained that due to the heat, she shows up around the library to distribute water before returning shortly after with food because the extreme heat and dehydration can cause a loss of appetite.

“This way, if I can hydrate them, they’ll get their appetite back in time for our food sharing,” added Dore. “All these little things are needed, that’s what the mayor seems to forget. He’s very disconnected.”