Feeding the homeless is more difficult than you may think. San Antonio chef Joan Cheever, despite donating meals to the poor every Tuesday for a decade, is now facing a $2,000 citation—though she meets all health codes, she does not have a special permit necessary to give food away free of charge. Conor Friedersdorf reports for The Atlantic:
All over the United States, local governments are coercing individuals and organizations to stop helping their least-well-off neighbors. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported last year that at least 31 cities had restricted or banned food-sharing. The Washington Post offers examples: ‘Late last year, police in Fort Lauderdale busted a 90-year-old World War II veteran named Arnold Abbott twice in one week for feeding the homeless. In Raleigh, N.C., a church group said the cops threatened to arrest them if they served food to the homeless. And in Daytona Beach, Fla., authorities unsuccessfully levied $2000 in fines against six people for feeding the homeless at a park.’
This seems an obvious example of licensing and permitting requirements gone too far. Why would the government stop a woman from performing a charitable act, merely because she didn’t have the correct permit? Especially when she passes all health codes, and is known for providing excellent, consistent service to people who need it?
As Friedersdorf points out, cities often face the anger or complaints of local residents when these free-food spots pop up: “the presence of homeless people [means] … the discovery of human waste in your back alley several times a month, petty drug dealers who scare parents with young kids away from the local playground, meth addicts who aggressively yell obscenities at women on the street…”
When a local neighborhood resident begins trying to serve the homeless, there is likely to be some local pushback. But Friedersdorf adds, “The complaints of residents ought to spur efforts to better address the needs of the neediest, not crackdowns against the moral heroes trying to make up for collective failures.”
It seems that such an attitude demonstrates a tendency to treat our neighborhoods as passive consumers: we expect them to be always immaculate, safe, nice. And granted, I can understand why parents of children would be especially anxious for such things. But it also seems that this attitude can create a false facade, one that enables us to ignore the problems going on in our backyards. If we push the needy away from our immediate attention, brushing discomforting objects from our environment, will we ever remember to help them? And by sterilizing our environments of poverty and need, are we in fact lying to ourselves about the deeper needs of our local community? The needy we don’t see are the ones we do not help. How many people, rather than complaining about the homeless food service in their neighborhood, would decide to volunteer there once or twice a week?
This isn’t just an issue of civic neighborliness. It is also an issue that should speak to the religious members of such communities. Friedersdorf calls upon Christians to rally behind this woman, and his words carry a justifiable sting:
Throughout America, Christians have spoken out and raised more than a million dollars to defend the freedom of co-religionists to decline to serve food at same-sex-wedding receptions. While there has been heated debate about whether or not their faith truly requires such abstentions, there can be no doubt that the Christian imperative to feed the hungry is both explicit in the Gospel and central to Jesus’ teachings.
Conservatives are often accused of only talking about what they’re against, not about what they are for. Friedersdorf makes a similar point here. If Christians believe that caring for the poor is a real necessity, we shouldn’t be pushing the homeless from our doorsteps—and we should be helping people like Cheever continue to serve their communities.