Economy

This Texas City’s Attempt To Fight Charities That Feed The Homeless Cost It 8 Years And $250,000

CREDIT: AP

A Dallas food charity providing meals to the city's homeless in 2006.

Dallas city leaders voted Wednesday to walk back its crackdown on feeding the homeless in public and agreed to pay out a quarter-million-dollar cash settlement to the charities that took the city to court eight years ago. A national advocate for the homeless hopes Dallas’ experience will be a lesson to other cities like Fort Lauderdale, FL that are trying to ban charities from feeding the homeless in public.

The original Dallas ordinance required charities that wished to feed the homeless to provide bathrooms and running water, effectively restricting the groups to a handful of sites rather than allowing them to go to where the need was greatest. It also required them to register with the city no matter how large or small their food program might be, with the threat of a $2,000 fine for violators. Some charity workers defied the ban on feeding homeless people wherever they were encamped, and the matter went to court in early 2007.

Dallas’ experience shows that “cities can save a lot of time and money if they work with homeless service providers, work with homeless advocates, and adopt reasonable policies and procedures that constructively help get homeless people off the street as opposed to simply enacting these punitive ordinances on their own and then having to wind up in court,” said Jeremy Rosen, Advocacy Director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP). Wednesday’s deal doesn’t eliminate city rules, he said, but revises them to allow important on-street charitable work “while also being fair to some of the city’s interests in knowing what’s going on and when very large groups of people are going to be congregating in one place.”

After Big Hart Ministries Association and Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry sued the city, six years passed before a judge ruled that the law violated the charities’ religious liberties under a Texas statute. Wednesday’s City Council vote carries the judge’s logic further, softening the rules charities face and effectively ending Dallas’ effort to clamp down on on-the-street feeding programs for the indigent regardless of religious affiliation.

Instead of running water and hand-washing facilities, street feeding programs may now use hand sanitizer. They only need to notify the city if they plan to serve more than 75 people, and must abide by some basic food safety guidelines.

“We think this is a fair settlement that allows the city to feel confident that the health and safety rules are being followed but doesn’t prevent our clients from doing what they want to do and what they feel their religion compels them to do,” Rosen said, “which is to go out and take care of homeless people who don’t have any other obvious source of food.”

But in the years it took to strike Wednesday’s deal in Dallas, dozens of other cities around the country have tried to prevent charities from feeding the homeless in public. Fort Lauderdale started arresting charity workers for feeding the homeless this fall. A judge has since ordered the city to pause the arrests and go into mediation with charities, but the ultimate outcome remains cloudy.

It is the 13th city to pass a law restricting food giveaways in the past two years, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, which says that more than 30 cities have taken up similar legislation in 2013 and 2014. The food giveaway restrictions are just one tool among several that cities have used to try to make homelessness a crime. Research has shown it is three times more costly to leave homeless people on the street and criminalize the resulting behaviors than it is to put them into permanent housing and provide supportive services to help reintegrate the homeless into society.

Proponents of the criminalization approach argue that feeding the homeless in public encourages them to stay homeless, and that laws like the Dallas or Fort Lauderdale ones are a form of “tough love” that will encourage homeless people to come seek out services at established, indoor facilities.

“To accept that rationale, you have to accept that if homeless people living outdoors were offered housing and services they would decline that option just in favor of living outside and getting food from a church group or other homeless service provider who came by the park or the beach or wherever they were living to give it to them,” NLCHP’s Rosen said. “If this were a part of a comprehensive solution and they were just trying to discourage outdoor feeding while providing alternatives, then I might appreciate their position a little bit.” In reality, criminalizing public feedings generally comes along with other legal crackdowns on homelessness. Fort Lauderdale’s law came on the heels of a ordinances making it illegal to have private possessions laid out on public property or to sleep outdoors.

NLCHP recently published a manual for fighting such legislation in court and a review of how similar cases have played out around the country. “When these cases get litigated our side usually wins,” said Rosen. “And a lot of time and money was spent by these cities, so you really have to question whether this makes sense.” When cities work constructively with charity groups instead, the results are both more equitable and far more efficient in terms of city resources.

“Dallas is a great example. We didn’t demand in settling the case that there be no ordinance to cover food sharing with homeless people. We said the ordinance that had been enacted was unreasonable in specific ways and needed to be changed, and that’s what the city’s agreed to do.”