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Activists promise to challenge Houston’s ban on feeding homeless

By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, April 6, 2012 14:43 EDT
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A line of homeless children being fed by a charitable group. Photo: Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.
 
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The Houston City Council voted this week to require prior permission before any citizen may distribute food to five or more people on public property, but local activists are preparing to fight back — and hard.

While the ordinance passed Wednesday night by an 11-6 vote was drastically stripped down from the version supported by Houston Mayor Annise Parker, activists say they’re going to challenge it in court and attempt to gather 20,000 signatures over the next month, which should be enough to trigger a city-wide vote on the ordinance in November.

It turns public property into private property,” Chris Carmona, a civil rights attorney in Houston and volunteer with the charitable group Noah’s Kitchen, told Raw Story on Friday. “We already have trespassing laws on the books. We have loitering laws. We have littering laws. But to take public property and turn it private… That’s our local government’s recent mood. That’s our biggest concern.”

The ordinance that passed Wednesday night requires groups to obtain permission from the city before handing out any food, and imposes a fine of $500 for anyone who defies the rule. It also allows the city to designate certain organizations as “recognized” charitable food providers, which would have to adhere to certain rules mostly pertaining to cleanliness.

The disjointed groups opposing the city on public food distribution are being led by the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, which boasts that they have been serving Houston’s homeless community four nights a week over the last 18 years. They helped lead the charge against the original proposal, which would have required food handlers’ licenses and special permits from the city to serve food in a public place.

“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 Houston newspaper The Memorial Examiner.

Carmona added that his group, Noah’s Kitchen, would be restricted to operating at only very specific locations, and likely far away from the less-seen populations they try to serve. He pointed to the city’s wealthier land and business owners as having been influential in the city’s thinking on the ordinance, which he claimed essentially says that the city owns all public property.

And Randall Kallinen, a civil rights attorney who has worked with Occupy Houston, absolutely agrees with Carmona. “A few of the downtown moneyed interests have been able to exert their influence to prevent people from giving and sharing food,” he told the local Fox affiliate.

Kallinen and Carmona, along with other associated groups, have released petition forms online for distribution across social media, hoping to generate the 20,000 signatures required to force the issue onto a city-wide ballot this November. Other groups are reportedly pursuing a restraining order against the ordinance, which would otherwise take effect on July 1 — but Carmona told Raw Story that may not even be necessary.

“Under city charter, if we get our signatures in a timely manner, once you submit them to the city secretary, that should stop any action on the ordinance until it can be voted on by the citizens of Houston,” he said.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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