Permission to Feed the Poor? Anti-Homelessness Legislation in the U.S.

Permission to Feed the Poor? Anti-Homelessness Legislation in the U.S.

It would seem that being homeless is hard enough. But advocates for the homeless say that a recent spate of anti-homeless ordinances in cities across the country are making it even harder to live on the streets.

More than 50 cities across the country have adopted restrictions on actions such as public camping and food sharing, narrowing the options for people with no residence. And while city officials say that these measures are designed to point homeless individuals toward real assistance, advocates believe that these measures are accomplishing something radically different: the criminalization of homelessness.

Philadelphia, among other cities, has recently passed a ban on public feeding – meaning that a church congregation seeking to feed the homeless in a public place would now be violating the law.

In Homes Not Handcuffs, a report released by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless, the authors write, “Even though most cities do not provide enough affordable housing, shelter space, and food to meet the need, many cities use the criminal justice system to punish people living on the street for doing things that they need to do to survive.”

The report states that these “measures often prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or begging in public spaces and include criminal penalties for violation of these laws,” and that “some cities have even enacted food sharing restrictions that punish groups and individuals for serving homeless people.” According to the report, “Many of these measures appear to have the purpose of moving homeless people out of sight, or even out of a given city.”

In Denver, police are now enforcing a city-wide ban on camping outdoors on public or private property.  Those breaking the new law potentially face a fine of $999 and in some cases, a year in jail.  “You would think the large number of citizens on the brink of extreme poverty would create compassion for people living on the streets,” writes Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH, and publisher of “But, instead, city leaders are feeling more pressure to enact anti-camping and anti-feeding ordinances to force homelessness out of their communities.”

But legislation that pushes homeless people out of urban areas only exacerbates the problem, according to a report released by the National Coalition for the Homeless and The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Measures that criminalize homelessness are legally problematic and do not make sense from a policy standpoint,” according to the report. “Laws that make it difficult for homeless persons to stay in downtown areas of cities force homeless persons away from crucial services and outreach.  When a homeless person is arrested under one of these laws, he or she develops a criminal record, making it more difficult to obtain employment or housing.”

Heather Johnson is a civil rights attorney at the homeless and poverty law center. "We're seeing these types of laws being proposed and passed all over the country," she recently told USA Today. "We think that criminalization measures such as these are counterproductive. Rather than address the root cause of homelessness, they perpetuate homelessness.”

The authors of Homes Not Handcuffs agree. “Instead of criminalizing homelessness, local governments, business groups, and law enforcement officials should work with homeless people, providers, and advocates for solutions to prevent and end homelessness. Cities should dedicate more resources to creating more affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, emergency shelters, and homeless services in general,” the report recommends. “To address street homelessness, cities should adopt or dedicate more resources to outreach programs, emergency shelter, and permanent supportive housing.”

For Joel John Roberts, the reality he sees in cities across America represents a problem for the homeless population “People are tired of compassion,” he says. “Irritation has trumped tolerance for those who are homeless.” He believes it's a failure to think long-term about the problem. “Enforcing anti-homeless ordinances is more politically expedient than actually addressing the root causes and long-term solutions to homelessness,” he says.

But not every state is trending toward an inhospitable response to its street-bound citizens. A few days ago the governor of Rhode Island signed on to the state's Homeless Bill of Rights, a piece of legislation designed to welcome and protect homeless individuals by protecting their rights.

"I think we've set the bar high in the U.S. for homeless people, and I'm very proud of that," said one Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. John Tassoni. The bill protects a homeless individual's “reasonable expectation of privacy,” and prohibits discrimination against those living on the streets.

Neil Donovan is the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. He applauds the passage of the bill. "It's important as a standalone piece of legislation but also as it's juxtaposed with other communities that are in the process of criminalizing homelessness," he says.

Groups and individuals working on behalf of the homeless might have an easier time of it in Rhode Island than many other states. In Houston, Texas, the act of feeding five or more homeless people in public without written permission from the city is now punishable as a misdemeanor, carrying a fine of $500. But churches, individuals, and faith-based groups are protesting the new restriction. Manual Sanchez, a volunteer with Simple Feast, a church ministry, summed up his group's feelings on the subject. "We have a huge problem asking the city for permission to feed the poor,” he said.

Kristin Wright is a contributing writer at, where she covers topics related to human rights, international travel, social justice, women's issues, religious freedom and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at Kristin can be contacted at

Publication date: June 27, 2012