Americans helping one another is a time-honored tradition. Whether it’s offering supplies to those affected by disasters, or caring for those who are going through difficult times, these acts of kindness represent some of the best qualities of this nation.
Yet municipalities across the United States have routinely punished well-meaning Americans for helping others, whether it’s by using their properties to house the homeless, or, in this case, simply feeding the homeless.
In Houston, city officials have been issuing citations to one grassroots organization for its efforts to feed homeless Houstonians. Food Not Bombs, a grassroots collective that feeds Houston’s homeless population outside the city’s downtown library every week, is suing the city over its “Charitable Food Services” ordinance. The group claims Houston’s ban against individuals feeding more than five people on public or private property without permission is unconstitutional.
Houston originally passed its ordinance back in 2012 but didn’t begin enforcing it until last year. Since March, however, Food Not Bombs volunteers have received approximately 90 citations from the city for feeding the homeless. Not one of those tickets has stood up in court. The city’s $500 tickets have often been dismissed either because juries refuse to support the fine or because representatives of the Houston Police Department didn’t show up to court.
Unfortunately, Houston isn’t alone. Bullhead City, Arizona, arrested and criminally charged a 78-year-old grandmother for feeding those in need in a city park. Norma Thornton retired to Bullhead City in 2017 after spending decades operating a restaurant in Alaska. Once in Bullhead City, Norma encountered the local homeless population and felt the urge to help. Norma chose to do what she knows best and cook for those in need, bringing them meals at the local city park where many gather during the day for shade or to use the restrooms.
This went on for years without incident. But in March 2022, police arrested Norma and criminally charged her for violating the city’s new ordinance that all but banned the sharing of prepared foods in a public park “for charitable purposes.” Permits are ostensibly available, but the requirements are extremely burdensome and sharply limit options. Not a single person has obtained one. Eventually the city dropped its charges against Norma, but not before warning her that if Norma returned to the city’s park, police would arrest her again.
Laws that criminalize acts of kindness put well-meaning Americans behind bars for simply trying to help someone in need. That’s not just immoral, it’s also unconstitutional. At the Institute for Justice (IJ), we’re fighting these ordinances because Americans have a constitutional right to liberty, and among those liberties is the right to engage in acts of kindness. That’s why we’re representing Norma in a federal lawsuit against Bullhead City. All she and Food Not Bombs want to do is help the homeless, and city officials should want to help them with that, not punish them.
Homelessness is on the rise in the United States, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. More than half a million Americans experienced homelessness in 2022. Worse yet, the number of people without access to shelter beds is growing, meaning they have no roof to cover their heads at night and no prepared meals to eat.
This crisis is complicated, and the solutions to fixing it will need to be complex, but simply jailing anyone who attempts to help someone whose fallen on hard times is unjust. More communities need people like Norma or Food Not Bombs, who use their own resources to help those in need. That’s why IJ is committed to fighting unjust limitations on private charity, so Norma and others like her can continue to carry out one of America’s greatest traditions.
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The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest law firm. Our mission is to end widespread abuses of government power and secure the constitutional rights that allow all Americans to pursue their dreams. IJ has represented individuals who faced retaliatory code enforcement for public comments they made, were arrested for posting jokes about their local police departments on social media, or had baseless lawsuits filed against them because of their criticisms of government officials. If you feel the government has abused your constitutional rights, tell us about your case. Visit https://ij.org/report-abuse/.
About the Institute for Justice
The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty that defends the rights of Americans all over the country, including those who want to provide private solutions to a public problem like homelessness. From suing the FBI, to getting people’s property returned to them, to helping rural Georgians save their land from being taken by a private railroad, IJ aims to protect everyday Americans’ civil liberties free of charge. For more information on the Institute for Justice and its work, visit www.ij.org.