(Photo: Noah's Kitchen)
Homeless activists and food-giveaway ministries are planning to fight an ordinance passed by the Houston City Council last week that requires prior permission before any group or individual could distribute food to five or more people on public property.
The law is supported by the city's mayor, Annise Parker, and requires anyone who is giving away food to first get a permit from the owner of the public property where the distribution takes place.
The law will be effective July 1 and when implemented will impose a $500 fine, an amount that was lowered from the originally suggested $2,000 tag, to anyone in violation. Homeless activists from Texas have begun a petition to strike down the ordinance in the coming November election.
"This will make it a crime to pull over to the side of the road and hand out food to five or more people," Nick Cooper, spokesman for Houston Food Not Bombs, told The Memorial Examiner, a local Houston paper.
Noah's Kitchen Executive Director Amber Rodriguez told The Christian Post Friday that as someone who has worked in the food industry for 15 years she has no problem complying with existing food safety and health laws. However, she draws the line with this particular ordinance.
Rodriguez explains that with the new ordinance, even city sidewalks where her group often gives away food to someone they've come across could be considered private property and therefore permission would be required.
"I understand the part about getting permission from the owner, but the problem with this is that city sidewalks are now considered private property instead of public property," she said. "I can walk on the sidewalk, but I can't give someone a meal?
"Our whole thing is to get to people who can't get to shelters. Let's say 'Star of Hope,' (a homeless shelter) they have 2,000 beds … The problem is we have 13-and-a-half thousand homeless people in Houston," Rodriguez explained. "What about those other people that can't get there?"
How the ordinance will affect the operations of other food distribution groups is unknown, but Rodriguez made it clear that her small organization might have some difficulty with the new law.
"We do go to some set locations for the last couple of years, but one of the things we do is we look for people. If someone is holding a sign we stop and give them a meal or if we see some people behind a building, let's say four or five people, it [would be] illegal to feed them," she said. "We can't afford to take a fine. Five-hundred dollars would feed 750 people."
Although Rodriguez said she does not focus on the political aspects and implications of the ordinance, she feels the law was imposed because of pressure from Houston businesses.
"The city is trying to clean up Houston in the business district where they have all these people staying. If they are going to cut off the feeding then they will be able to push [the homeless] away," she said. "My problem with this is that if we can't feed them, the city of Houston is not offering a solution. They are creating more of a problem than anything."
Chris Carmona, an attorney who also volunteers with Noah's Kitchen, also feels that the mayor was marketing the ordinance as a way of dealing with the city's homeless problem.
"This does nothing to solve the issue of homelessness," said Carmona, according to news reports. "This does nothing to get them into the right programs, does nothing to put them on the right track to healing and recovery and getting the necessary assistance that's needed.
"All this does is take away from the charities, organizations, individuals and groups that have an interest in making sure that other people are doing better out there, and that have a God-given will to do that."
Rodriguez, whose group also provides clothing and the resources to find medical help, shelter, employment, and eventual housing, said a link is on the Noah's Kitchen website that leads to the petition against the law.
"We are one of 38 small organizations that are out trying to help," Rodriguez said. "We are trying to gather 20,000 signatures to appeal this ordinance that just passed to basically state that all we want to do is have them take that away and have it go back to the way it was before."