Cities, homeless advocates wage battle over laws against feeding the hungry

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The recent case of an Alabama pastor who was prohibited from feeding the homeless has renewed scrutiny on cities that have made this charitable act an illegal one.

Pastor Rick Wood recently was ordered by Birmingham, Ala., police to stop handing out hotdogs and bottled water to the homeless in a city park.

Wood, who preaches at The Lord’s House of Prayer in Oneonta – a mining town about 35 miles northeast of Birmingham -- says he was approached last month by law enforcement officers and told he was in violation of a new ordinance that requires food trucks to obtain a permit if they want to sell food.

Wood told the cops he wanted to hand out the food, not sell it – but it didn’t matter.

“This makes me so mad,” Wood told a local news station. “These people are hungry, they’re starving. They need help from people. They can’t afford to buy something from a food truck.”

While city officials say these kinds of rules are meant to protect the homeless from tainted or otherwise unsafe food, some watchdog groups say they're really meant to drive out the homeless from city parks and other areas.

“These laws are part and parcel of general efforts to move [the homeless] out of cities,” Jeremy Rosen, policy director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, told

Across the country, more than 50 cities are ramping up efforts to push their homeless population out of downtown areas. Many have adopted “anti-camping” or “anti-food sharing” rules in recent years, setting up lengthy legal challenges between city officials and homeless advocates in places like Philadelphia, Orlando and Dallas.

City leaders say they want to improve the lives of their homeless population but others, including Rosen, say the regulations make it harder for folks down on their luck to get help. He says they are adopting “out of sight, out of mind” proposals.

“It’s particularly cruel and really outrageous when a church ministry is trying to do what they feel is their religious duty, only to be stopped,” Rosen said.

In 2007, Rosen’s group filed a lawsuit against Dallas and won – successfully contesting a city ordinance that restricted locations where groups could hand out or share food.

There have been other cases too.

City officials in Albuquerque, N.M., settled a lawsuit last week over a 2010 incident where people were arrested and criminally cited for giving food to the homeless. In the settlement, all charges were dropped against the individuals, and the city agreed to a $98,000 payout.

The move came after Benjamin Abbott recorded police officers in September 2010 telling him and his friend they needed a permit to pass out food to the homeless.

Abbott caught the officers saying, “We are not doing this because this is our hobby, okay. Understand that. There’s people above us who want this corrected.”

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Las Vegas in 2006, challenging a city ordinance that made it illegal to feed homeless people in city parks. The ACLU argued the constitutionality of the ordinance and said it would be impossible to enforce.

The suit was settled in 2010 after the city passed new rules regarding the treatment of homeless people. They also passed a rule allowing groups of up to 75 people to gather in the park without a permit.

The ACLU also went after the city of Orlando in 2006. In that case, they again argued the constitutionality of the ban. In 2008, a federal district court sided with the ACLU and ruled that the ban was in violation of the First Amendment.

In Philadelphia, the organization teamed up with religious groups to file a federal suit against the city over ordinances they claimed would make it near impossible to feed the homeless.

One banned the distribution of food in public parks.

When questioned, Mark McDonald, the press secretary for Mayor Michael Nutter, told USA Today that the measure was about extending services to the homeless.

“This is about an activity on city park land that the mayor thinks is better suited elsewhere,” he told the paper. “We think it’s a much more dignified place to be in an indoor sit-down restaurant.”

He added, “The overarching policy goal of the mayor is based on a belief that hungry people deserve something more than getting a ham sandwich out on the side of the street."