Pot Luck

It's Now Illegal to Feed [More Than Five] Homeless People [at Once] on Public Property

After a protracted debate and opposition from nearly every political and religious group in the city, Houston's City Council passed an ordinance last week that bans serving charitable meals on properties -- public or private -- where the property owner hadn't granted express permission for you to do so.

The language behind the phrase "charitable meal" means that not only are the homeless affected; groups like Occupy would also be able to be starved out -- essentially -- from occupying public properties for too long. Bring food to Occupy protesters, and you're in violation of the ordinance, which comes with a $500-a-day fine. Think the City will grant permission for you to bring them food when Occupy seeks to reform this year? Think again.

Opponents of the ordinance were quick to point this out, in addition to the fact that the ordinance also infringes on people's right to freedom of expression through acts of charity -- whether those acts are religiously motivated or otherwise.

The council members who supported the ordinance included Mayor Annise Parker herself along with Ellen Cohen, Wanda Adams, Ed Gonzalez and Melissa Noriega. Opponents on the Council included Al Hoang, C.O. Bradford, Jack Christie and Helena Brown. It was Brown who spoke most passionately against the ordinance in last month's City Council session, calling it unnecessary and misguided, especially at a time when the City is strapped for cash.

"The City is in dire financial straits," Brown commented during last month's public hearing. "If we can't enforce the laws that are already on the books, why are we even thinking about adding another law to enforce that would only add to the burden of police officers and city officials?"

The ordinance was scaled down considerably from its initial language and penalties, which would have required charities or charity-minded persons to register with the City of Houston, take food safety courses and pay fines of $2,000 a day for failing to comply with the rules.

But that didn't mollify its opponents: The City will still require groups to obtain a permit to feed the homeless in, say, public parks. And that's why people like Nick Cooper of Food Not Bomb's Houston chapter have already begun organizing petitions and further protests, seeking to get the ordinance overturned on the November election ballot.

Within the nationwide trend of charitable feeding bans, it wouldn't be the first time an ordinance has been struck down: Las Vegas passed its own charitable feeding ban last July, but it was recently ruled as unconstitutional by a judge.

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Katharine Shilcutt