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.
Read More Feeding the Homeless — The Atlantic.