Woman challenges Arizona city’s ban on feeding people for charity

In Bullhead City, Arizona, your kindness might cost you your freedom. It nearly did for Norma Thornton, a 78-year-old grandmother who was arrested and criminally charged for feeding those in need in Bullhead City. Under a new ordinance, the city has deemed it a criminal misdemeanor—punishable by fines and even imprisonment—to share prepared food in a public park “for charitable purposes.” As the city attorney clarified, people may freely share food in public parks at “social events, which would include a party.” But be sure your “party” doesn’t include any homeless people, or you might go to jail. 

That’s the city’s lesson for Norma Thornton. Norma operated a restaurant before retiring to Bullhead City in 2017. Bullhead City is a city of 40,000, neighboring the Colorado River on Arizona’s western border. In Bullhead City Community Park, Norma encountered people in need—that is, people who could barely afford housing nearby, as well as people experiencing homelessness. Though no one spends nights at the park (retreating to federal land nearby), some come together in the day in the public park, where they can take advantage of shade, benches, and restrooms. She learned that the nearest shelters and food pantries are miles away, and their resources and availability are limited, leaving dozens hungry each night. So Norma decided to use her career skills to share nutritious, hot, homecooked meals with people in the park. For more than four years, Norma would regularly bring her food to the picnic tables there, sharing with anyone who asked. 

That all changed on March 8, 2022. Just as she was performing her usual cleanup of the area, Norma was arrested and criminally charged with violating the city’s ordinance. Norma refused to plead guilty as she felt she’d done nothing wrong; months later (after hearings in criminal court), the city dropped the charge—but only while clarifying that if Norma does it again, the city would throw her in jail. Now, Norma shares her food in a private alley—without shade in the scorching heat, without tables or a seating area, without a place for people to wash their hands, and out of sight of people who could use her help.  

Homelessness is, of course, a complicated and serious problem. But criminalizing acts of charity isn’t the solution. What’s more, it’s unconstitutional. That’s why on October 25, 2022, Norma joined with the Institute for Justice (IJ) in filing a new federal lawsuit against Bullhead City. The lawsuit asks the court to strike down the city’s ordinance and allow Norma, and people like her, to share food in the park. 

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