Helping others should not be legally difficult, and it should never cost someone their freedom. Yet, more and more places, including cities in both Arizona and North Carolina, are standing in the way of well-meaning individuals who are trying to help the homeless in their communities. At the Institute for Justice (IJ), we are committed to making sure every American has the right to help others—whether that means suing a town for arresting a grandmother who’s trying to feed those in need or encouraging a city to remove barriers to helping others.
The city of Raleigh, North Carolina, has faced a dilemma for years regarding the homeless population that gathers in the municipality’s downtown parks—particularly Moore Square. Various churches, nonprofits, and groups of caring individuals have tried to hand out food to the hungry in Moore Square, but the efforts are sporadic, thanks in no small part to the city’s actions over the past decade.
Ten years ago, the city made national news for “Biscuitgate”—a situation where police officers threatened to arrest volunteers for passing out 100 sausage biscuits near the park, as the News & Observer reported. The city requires groups who want to distribute food at the park to get an $800 permit—well more than the cost of a biscuit.
Now, the city is looking at developing a new food distribution permit, but city leaders haven’t established any timeframe yet. Until then, those wanting to help must obtain a costly permit that city officials rarely issue, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
This is hardly the first time that cities have made it nearly impossible, or even criminal, for compassionate Americans to help others in their communities. IJ is currently suing Bullhead City, Arizona, challenging a city ordinance that makes it a crime for people to charitably share food in a public park without a permit. These permits are expensive and carry conditions so restrictive that, in practice, they prohibit such charity.
Norma Thornton, a 78-year-old grandmother, was arrested and charged under that ordinance because she chose to use her restaurateur skills to share homecooked meals with those in need at a city park. Although the city ultimately dropped the charge, the prosecutor warned Norma that if she served food at the park again without a permit, she’d go to jail.
“Governments across the country need to get out of the way of private citizens working to address some of society’s most intractable problems,” said Diana Simpson, an IJ attorney. “Whether it’s feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, or addressing another challenge, community members can often fill the gap left by scarce public resources. Too frequently, however, bureaucrats stop well-meaning people who have come up with innovative solutions. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s particularly cruel when it leaves people without basic human needs.”
Helping others shouldn’t be this difficult. Cities claim their restrictions are meant to address concerns of safety or public health, but the truth is that people like Norma are part of the solution, not the problem. As Raleigh City Council member Stormie Forte said during a recent city council meeting, “Many nonprofits and churches are worried about the growing homeless population and see providing food as one way to help them. Any new rules should be the least restrictive possible.”
IJ agrees. Homelessness is a complicated issue. No one solution can solve it. But criminalizing private charity isn’t the answer. Hopefully, Raleigh officials recognize that and enact rules that enable people to help others instead of the opposite.
Tell us about your case
The Institute for Justice is a national 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 purse their dreams. IJ has represented home-based chefs, free food pantries, as well as homeless shelters all facing irrational regulations that create barriers, not solutions, to complex societal problems. If you feel the government has abused your constitutional rights, tell us about your case, visit www.ij.org/report-abuse.
About the Institute for Justice
The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty, defending the rights of Americans all over the country, including those who want to provide private solutions to public problems like homelessness. From suing the FBI to get 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.