Houston Food Not Bombs is a local group of independent volunteers that provides meals to the homeless people of downtown Houston. CHRON reports that the group is one of many that is “under attack” by a decade old ordinance that is now being enforced as the city was drawing near to its host date of this year’s 2023 NCAA Final Four. They are now facing crackdowns from Houston PD thanks to the mayor’s direction.
The issue began with the city’s deciding to now start enforcing a controversial charitable feeding ordinance law that was passed back in 2012. The ordinance states that anyone providing meals to more than five people in need require permission from the property owner to do so, even on public property. This meant the only approved public location was at the same site as Houston PD’s police property room.
For groups such as Houston Food Not Bombs to be successful they’re adamant it is best to come to the people in need, wherever they may be. One of their best sites for providing meals is the plaza in front of the downtown Central Library. Where they noticed that Houston PD put up notices threatening fines and tickets for charity groups after February 24th. The first ticket for these violations was given to a member of Houston Food Not Bombs on March 1st. After the initial ticket multiple members of their group as well as a member of a separate religious group providing meals for the homeless have been issued. The Houston PD has also gone beyond ticketing and threatening arrest for one member, Shere Dore, after she received her second ticket. Shere Dore also does volunteer work with a few Islamic organizations that have been feeding people in need by the library, doing the volunteer work four nights a week. She says their efforts help feed hundreds of people on a single night, Tuesdays being the busiest and feeding upwards to 250 people in a single night.
The looming threats of Houston PD moving on to arrests has already caused a drop in the number of volunteers being found helping the many homeless people in the area. Dore said the threat has already caused one of the Islamic groups she works for to relocate to the official city-sanctioned area. While others have paused their work to assess the risks and what they should do next. “This appears to be the first instance of anyone in Houston being ticketed under this horrific law. The mayor is taking HPD’s time and efforts away from violent crimes, human trafficking, and corruption in government, and sending cops to intimidate people who are doing nothing wrong, and are in fact helping the city’s most vulnerable. He should be ashamed of himself,” said Houston Food Not Bombs volunteer Nick Cooper.
Mary Benton, director of communications for the office of Mayor Sylvester Turner, defended the new crackdowns on volunteers saying there was, “an increase in the number of threats and violence incidents directed at visitors and employees.” Benton was also quoted saying, “Parents and families have expressed they no longer feel comfortable visiting the library or holding special events. We hope the library can serve as a safe, inclusive place for all to come and visit. That’s why we are providing a dedicated, alternative charitable food service at 61 Riesner Street. This location has the infrastructure and amenities needed to provide services and food to Houstonians in need. By shifting food services to an alternative location, we can maintain the integrity and historic nature of Houston’s Public Library while serving all Houstonians with the dignity they deserve.”
Benton also provided one news outlet with a version of the notices that were posted at the library before the police began enforcing the controversial ordinance. Stating the city is, “informing citizens about the updated Houston Health Department rules and regulations governing charitable food service events on public property.” The notice saying, “The city supports, and is grateful for, the charitable food services provided throughout the City. To assist efforts, the City is providing an appropriate location with necessary requirements for a safe, clean, and respectful environment.”
Dore however is skeptical about the city’s statement as to why they have decided to now start enforcing the ordinance. She believes it’s really being done as a means to “clean up” downtown and revitalize it as a hot spot as the city will be hosting the NCAA Final Four. Other advocates also say that volunteer groups and those they help feed being targeting doesn’t fall in line with Houston’s recent claims of being a beacon for fighting homelessness. Some find the move particularly odd as volunteers faced no threats of jail or tickets for doing the same work when the city hosted other major events such as Super Bowl LI in 2017. Although during those events the homeless Houstonians themselves were targeted by sweeps, tickets, and arrests.
Dore is also critical of the city’s bold claims to successfully addressing the homelessness issue it faces. She did volunteer work for the Salvation Army as well as other non-profits in 2014 thru 2015. The goal of the work was to get an accurate count of the homeless in the city. But according to her the numbers don’t add up. “The more people you count, the more money you get.” She stated in reference to tax and grant money used for the project. Nick Cooper said, “There is so much data that Homeless Counts are inaccurate. And shockingly, the counts are conducted by those who only get funding when the number of homeless go down.” The language used by the mayor also speaks volumes to the groups and the homeless alike with statements like, “retaking the Central Library Downtown.”
The first Houston Food Not Bombs member to be ticketed has already filed a lawsuit against the city. Although it’s not the first time the law has been challenged via the judicial branch, it is the first in a long time. The others were dismissed due to a “lack of cause” but with the issuing of tickets and threats of arrest they are hopeful the case can move forward. Food Not Bombs in Fort Lauderdale, Florida successfully won a similar case against a city ordinance. The defense being that the sharing of food with Food Not Bomb’s central Anti-War, Pro-Vegetarian message are worthy of constitutional protection under the first amendment.
Dore says the unhoused and food-insecure served by the various volunteer groups in Houston are standing behind the groups and their fight against the unjust ordinance. They are hopeful the city will repeal the ordinance. “The homeless are people too, and they deserve to be respected.” Says Dore.
Sadly, Houston is far from the only city to enforce such measures against those simply helping others in their time of need. It is all too common to see law enforcement doing the bidding of lawmakers against citizens trying to make a difference. Whether it’s through fines, threats of prison, or even destroying food and goods made available for those in need, there are far too many examples of the state using force against peaceful people trying to make their communities a better place.