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.