California city arrests a dozen people for passing out food and toiletries to homeless people

El Cajon made it illegal to pass out food on city property last fall.

A homeless woman pushes her belongings on a cart in San Diago in 2017. (CREDIT: Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A homeless woman pushes her belongings on a cart in San Diago in 2017. (CREDIT: Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A dozen people including a 14-year-old kid were given misdemeanor citations on Sunday in El Cajon, California, after they defied the city’s recently enacted ban on distributing food to the needy on public land.

Local charities intend to challenge the law in court. Sunday’s arrests will help give them standing to bring their case. A group called Break the Ban has vowed to push forward with another scheduled food distribution day near the end of the month.

El Cajon is not alone in using the criminal justice system to intercede between charitable people and those in need. Police in Daytona Beach, Florida, cracked down on food distributors there in 2014. Civic leaders in nearby Fort Lauderdale enacted a similar ban later that year. More than two-dozen other cities around the country moved to criminalize the distribution of food to homeless people that same year, according to research from the National Coalition for the Homeless.

If Break the Ban is able to sue and win, it too will be in good company. Dallas, Texas, ended up paying a quarter-million-dollar settlement in 2014 to a network of charities that sued over that city’s restrictions on service provision to homeless people.

Outright bans like that established in El Cajon last year are just one of several tactics that local leaders have used to curb charitable interaction with those living outdoors. The city council in Birmingham, Alabama, tried to curb similar activity by requiring food distributors to get a $500 food truck permit.

The wave of anti-homeless bills in 2014 and 2015 helped galvanize opposition. For a time, the longstanding expert consensus that laws making the day to day realities of life on the street into crimes are counterproductive seemed to be breaking through. Late in the Obama years, federal housing and homelessness officials went so far as to threaten funding for homelessness mitigation work in cities that refused to reverse the criminalization of homelessness.

But the tendency to criminalize is stubborn. Many local governments continue to treat homelessness as a nuisance that can be curbed through punitive measures rather than as a complex social problem, despite both the common-sense reality that fines or jail terms do nothing to get a homeless person housed and the research showing that it’s three times cheaper to simply give people housing than to shunt homeless people off into jails and hospitals.

El Cajon is a peculiar example of the trend. The city of roughly 100,000 passed the ordinance last November, after a Hepatitis A outbreak in the San Diego area which infected more than 500 and killed about 20 had been in the news for months. The law was framed as a response to a public health crisis, albeit a hard-hearted one: Most of those who’d died in the outbreak were homeless, and by opting to ban food distribution rather than to install public restrooms, the city effectively sought to keep the outbreak fenced into the homeless population rather than to mitigate it outright.

But even that framing is too generous to city leaders. El Cajon has also criminalized sleeping on the sidewalk, panhandling, and sleeping in tents on public ground — all hallmarks of the old way of thinking.

The city’s homeless people are members of a burgeoning population who can’t afford to put a roof over their heads in California and across the country. The small city is a bleak example of the broader nationwide crisis in affordable housing and homelessness. About one in four people there live in poverty. A county-wide point-in-time count of homeless people on one night last January recorded 323 people sleeping on the street in El Cajon, up from 218 the year before and 191 in 2015.

Homelessness surged in the wake of the Wall Street collapse that cratered the broader economy in 2008. But the modern story of mass homelessness in the United States begins back in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan shuttered most of the country’s mental health facilities and cut funding for housing subsidies. President Donald Trump’s budget plan from 2017 called for redoubling those errors in policy, largely by reshaping public housing rules in ways that would lead to the eviction of hundreds of thousands of struggling families who have nowhere else to go but the streets.