The temperature dropped to the mid-50s, the wind picked up, and suddenly Felicia Garcia's outdoor nap wasn't so comfy.
She awoke Tuesday to the rain coming down on the thin nylon walls of her tent, zipping up the entryway to keep dry as her boyfriend, Jerry Landry, hurried inside. Several backpacks were tucked neatly along the perimeter of the small room, and fuzzy blankets were their only cushion from the plywood foundation beneath them. “We're just trying to make it,” Garcia said, competing over the rain.
Every night, Garcia and Landry rely on 1000 Hills Ministry for dinner, underneath a bridge on St. Charles Street—a luxury that Garcia and Landry say has become less and less available over the past couple years.
Volunteers used to bring them Popeyes' chicken—two pieces for 99 cents—near a church on Fannin Street every Tuesday night. No more. Sometimes they went downtown to the Preston Street Bridge for meals. No more. And when Garcia was on her own in 2013, she used to go to a Third Ward bridge—but that ended, too, after police told volunteers one night that, sorry, you need a permit for this.
Such are the likely results of the Houston Charitable Feeding Ordinance, passed by City Council in 2012, which requires anyone wanting to feed more than five homeless people to get a permit from the city, to receive food-safety training, and to get written consent from private property owners before serving. Giving a couple boxes of leftovers to a family of homeless people downtown, without first doing all of the above, now may come with a fine of up to $500, which Mayor Annise Parker graciously lowered from $2,000 in the final draft of the ordinance.
Backed by Parker, the ordinance passed 11-6, despite heated opposition from many volunteers and charitable organizations, who suddenly faced punishment for being Good Samaritans without permission.
The backlash has not stopped.
Just this week, Empower Texans has launched a new petition to repeal the ordinance, writing, “As we enter the holiday season, the City of Houston has criminalized the acts of kindness and charity that many Texans value. ... Feeling compassionate? Too bad, you need a permit.” Attorney Eric Dick—who recently ran for city council specifically to overturn the ordinance—plans to begin gathering signatures for a charter amendment once election season ends. And attorney Randall Kallinen already has over 72,000 supporters for his own petition on Change.org.
Volunteers like Nick Cooper of Food Not Bombs, which has refused to comply with the ordinance, have called the arguments City Council made in support of the ordinance “a joke.” The ordinance was championed by former councilman James Rodriguez after he received complaints from business owners in his district that homeless people left behind trash from their free food. Rodriguez told the Houston Chronicle in 2012, "What this ordinance is trying to do is treat our homeless with dignity, to be able to be more efficient and to protect public property. We're not saying you can't feed them, but let's just work together to help clean up the trash."
Within a month of the ordinance's passage, Councilman Michael Kubosh launched the first petition to overturn the ordinance. Last November, he fell just 2,500 signatures short of getting the issue on the ballot.
Parker, in a Chronicle article about Kubosh's petition, pointed to the fact that 55 organizations met the permit requirements as evidence that, “whatever the reasoning behind the petition-gatherers, I think the ordinance has proven to work.” But what hasn't necessarily been documented is the amount of groups or individuals who have simply stopped giving. New Beginnings Church used to provide meals for the needy both at their own facility and on Travis Street. After the ordinance, however, no more. “We're a small organization,” Pastor Joe Donalson said, “and we're not going to jump through all the hurdles that the city wants us to go through.”
Even if organizations choose to go through the training and get the permit, volunteers would still have to obtain permission from the property owner any time they felt like doing good deeds at a new location—a hurdle that even the complying organizations find far too cumbersome. Sammie Smimmo, the founder of 52-52 Ministries, which is devoted specifically to helping the homeless, said she rarely ever actually fishes for written consent every time she wants to go help people, because she never knows when she might need to.
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She gave her card to Garcia and Landry once, and told them to call her any time they are hungry, and she will come find them, plus anyone they are with, and give them a meal. Landry still has it in his wallet.
The couple thinks they might be able to get an apartment in January, when Garcia, who is bipolar, can begin receiving her social security disability check again. Landry, a licensed barber, has been cutting hair with a razor and a comb for $5 bucks a pop as he saves up for new barbering equipment—he lost all of it when his home burned to the ground. Landry and Garcia said that, meanwhile, they have relied on the generosity of people like Smimmo in order to eat.
Since 2009, Smimmo has since taken mission trips to 74 cities, and says she seem encounters feeding ordinances like Houston's more and more. (Last year, the National Coalition for the Homeless found that 71 cities have passed or were trying to pass feeding ordinances). It's something that perplexes Smimmo, who herself spent two years living in a tool shed after a deep depression caused her to lose her business and her home. It was the kindness of strangers, Smimmo said—not the city, large coordinated efforts, and certainly not a feeding ordinance—that got her back on her feet.
“People gave me some hope by just being kind,” she said. “If you don't understand what just a smile or a gesture can do—it can save somebody's life. It can start with a hey, how are you doing? Here's a sandwich.”