A few hours before dawn on Wednesday morning, city counselors in Fort Lauderdale, FL passed a bill to make it harder to feed the homeless. Amid raucous protests from activists, the council voted 4-1 in favor of a long-pending slate of new regulations on where and how groups can provide food to homeless people.
The vote makes the south Florida city the 13th in the country to pass restrictions on where people can feed the homeless in the past two years, and the 22nd town to make it harder to feed homeless people through either legislation or community pressure since the beginning of 2013, according to a report released Monday by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH).
Counting towns that are still in the process of advancing some sort of crackdown, NCH says, 31 American cities “have attempted to pass new laws that restrict organizations and individuals from sharing food with people experiencing homelessness” in 2013 and 2014. The group also notes a 2013 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors that found two out of three cities turned hungry people away from food programs in 2013 “due to a lack of resources.”
In August, the largest network of anti-hunger charitable organizations in the country reported that one in every six food charities is worried about having to close its doors for good sometime soon. The need for such charitable supports jumped with the onset of the Great Recession and has not substantially dropped off over the course of the gradual economic recovery. Charity organizers have been warning for over a year that they are stretched beyond their capacity.
Fort Lauderdale’s new law typifies how dozens of towns have chosen to make things even harder for those groups. No two indoor feeding sites can be set up within 500 feet of one another or on the same city block. Outdoor feeding programs — a popular choice in a beach town — now require “the permission of the property owner and have to provide portable toilets for use by workers and those being fed,” the Sun Sentinel reports. That means that groups need a city permit to set up food sharing programs on public property like parks and beaches while also coming up with additional funding to rent port-a-potties if they do receive a permit.
While four cities have used more abstract community pressure “to successfully force an end or a relocation to an existing food-sharing program” and seven more have such not-in-my-backyard efforts underway, according to the NCH report, legislation like has been the more common tactic. A dozen cities had passed laws like this before the Fort Lauderdale vote, according to the report. Another four have used food safety laws to curtail programs that feed the homeless.
One of the people who spoke in favor of the Fort Lauderdale law the afternoon before Wednesday’s early-morning vote was Ron Book, who leads the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust. “Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness,” Book said, according to the Sun Sentinel. “Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing.”
Book’s mentality reflects the teachings of a man named Dr. Robert Marbut, who has made something of a career out of advising cities to do what Fort Lauderdale is doing. Marbut “has traveled to 60 plus communities in 2013-2014 speaking on the dangers of enabling people experiencing homelessness through sharing food,” the NCH report says. It is a “myth” that feeding the homeless encourages them to stay homeless, the report says, since “remaining homeless is rarely a choice at all” but rather the byproduct of expensive housing, unavailable jobs, and mental health issues or physical disabilities.
Attempts to curb homelessness through legal penalties on either the indigent themselves or the groups who try to help them end up being far more costly than simply putting homeless people in homes and giving them supportive services. It is also far less effective at returning homeless people to self-sufficiency. Despite a clear consensus among anti-homelessness advocates that the criminalization approach favored by Book, Marbut, and dozens of city lawmakers around the country does more harm than good, the resources and political will necessary to end homelessness in America remains elusive.