My brother’s keeper – debating homeless anti-feeding laws

On July 25, 2012 I posted a story about a feeding ministry called Walking Together founded by Chris and Bob Steger three years ago.

While interviewing the Stegers and some of their volunteers, they told the story of how they started their Thursday dinners in Greenfield Park but were told by Wilmington city officials that they could no longer feed people there because they were “drawing a crowd of homeless”—a crowd the city did not want in the park. That’s when they began feeding the Thursday meals in the parking lot of The Lord’s Church on the corner of 5th and Greenfield streets.

Their history ignited a discussion between the volunteers the night I was there about the plight of the homeless. They told me that it is becoming harder to live on the streets. In fact, as one of the Walking Together volunteers, a lawyer in Wilmington, so aptly worded the problem, “It is becoming illegal in Wilmington and North Carolina to be homeless.”

I was shocked by his statement. According to this volunteer, the homeless can no longer sleep on park benches or on city property.

I found this discussion very interesting and troubling, but I swept it under my comfortable rug dismissing the problem until I read a startling article in Christianity Today about the many laws cities all over the country are enforcing regarding the homeless and feeding ministries. The problem is not only in Wilmington. It is in Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia and Denver, just to name a few. Many cities have adopted anti-camping or anti-feeding laws, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

In Houston, feeding five or more homeless people in public without written permission from the city will result in a $500 fine. Wilmington’s anti-feeding mandate can be found in the Wilmington, N.C. Code of ordinances: “Except as otherwise set forth in this Code, no person shall establish a location on any street or sidewalk for any period of time to distribute, dispense, hand out or give out food” (Chapter 11, Article III, Sec. 11-47). There is no stated fine.

There it is in black and white.

But despite the seeming immorality of these laws, “A wave of anti-feeding laws enforced this summer in cities nationwide has met with mixed sentiments from homeless ministries” writes Allison Althoff in the Christianity Today article.

What? There are people supporting such “atrocities?” Yes, as in everything, there are two sides to the story, two points of view. And even feeding ministries are agreeing with the strict rules.

Proponents of the laws believe the ordinances will steer the homeless to shelters and places where they will receive a more extensive range of services and resources. They defend such measures by stating that they are trying to add dignity to their lives and ensure good public hygiene. Defending his city’s feeding-ban, the mayor of Philadelphia said their laws were based on the belief “that hungry people deserve something more that getting a ham sandwich out on the side of the street.” Along the same lines of defense, Robert Lupton, president and CEO of FCS Ministries out of Atlanta and author of Toxic Charity states, “The absolute worst response is loading your trunk with sandwiches and taking your youth group downtown to pass [them] out. That simply increases dependency. There’s no accountability and nothing developmental in that approach.”

But opponents such as Heather Johnson, a civil rights attorney at the homeless and poverty law center, stated in a June 2012 USA Today article, “We think that criminalization measures such as these are counterproductive. Rather than address the root cause of homelessness, they perpetuate homelessness.”

Johnson is referring to city laws that serve stiff penalties against homeless and those trying to help. According to Crosswalk.com, a city-wide ban in Denver on camping outdoors on public or private property contains strict fines, some as high as $999 or a year in jail. Opponents argue that these drastic measures further poverty and make it even harder to get a job and housing because “offenders” develop a criminal record.

I hate debate. It seems everyone believes they are correct and the argument just keeps us going in circles. But this debate is worthy of contemplating, perhaps even fighting.

What do you think? Should there be feeding-bans and ordinances against the homeless and those trying to help? Is there a better way?

4 Responses to “My brother’s keeper – debating homeless anti-feeding laws”

  1. Jana Greene

    Excellent article, Andy. Of course there are two sides to every story, but this one is heartbreaking…and anger-inducing! Instead of the laws supporting a community that bands together to feed hungry people, it splinters that same community. I am reminded of Jesus’s words in Matthew 25:36 -

    “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

    I was hungry and you fed me,
    I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
    I was homeless and you gave me a room,
    I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
    I was sick and you stopped to visit,
    I was in prison and you came to me.’
    (The Message Translation)

    Reply
  2. andy lee

    Amen girl! Isn’t it amazing how Scripture can disperse the gray? Matthew 25 makes it so very clear who is right and wrong. Honestly, I know we want to help our homeless, but I also know cities want to hide them. Let it be noted that Jesus also said, “You will always have the poor among you…John 12:8.” Thanks for your great comment!

    Reply
  3. Bobby Steger

    Great writing ! That verse. In Matthew was actually the basis for us starting our Walking Together ministry, and as you know we actually use the ministry to not only feed the poor and homeless, but to find people who want help, true help! We have been able to help all who come on thurs night to be helped or grow in some way. Thanks for all your helps and writes

    Reply
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