Every Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m., volunteers for Noah's Kitchen gather at Jenni's Noodle House in the Heights and begin prepping for their day ahead. Since 2010, the charity's mission has been to feed Houston's homeless one meal at a time.
In their first year, Noah's Kitchen volunteers fed 5,000 people; that number doubled to 10,000 by 2011. And they're just one of the organizations concerned that a proposed new ordinance against charitable feeding could seriously impede their work.
The initial draft of a charitable feeding ordinance prepared on March 1 would have required charities like Noah's Kitchen to register with the City of Houston's Health and Human Services Department, take food safety and training classes and receive certifications to handle food, and receive written consent from a property owner before conducting any charitable feeding activities on the property. Refusal to follow the rules outlined in the ordinance would have resulted in fines of up to $2,000 per day.
"Some of the institutional feeding situations that are going on are very dehumanizing," said Ecclesia Church employee Joey Davis during a protest at City Hall earlier this week. Many homeless people choose not to eat in these types of situations -- the Star of Hope being one notable example -- and therefore rely on charitable feeding as one of their few options to obtain healthy food on a consistent basis.
Fed up with the thought of the City legislating acts of charity like this, advocates from across Houston -- and from nearly every walk of life -- banded together to fight the ordinance on Tuesday afternoon. Nick Cooper of Food Not Bombs' Houston chapter and Barry Klein of the Houston Property Rights Association joined forces with the Houston Tea Party, the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, the Houston Young Republicans, the Houston Libertarian Party and various synagogues, mosques and even Hare Krishna temples throughout the city.
It almost sounds like a bad joke: How do you know a proposed ordinance is utterly ludicrous? When Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians, Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists all agree that it is.
In a public hearing on Tuesday afternoon, representatives from dozens of charitable organizations and religious groups flooded the chambers to speak before the City Council in opposition to the ordinance. But before any impassioned speeches could take place, Mayor Parker announced revisions to the ordinance that were wholly unexpected.
"Obviously, this needs a little more work," Parker said as she addressed the crowd. "And we appreciate those who constructively engaged on the issue." City employees passed out papers to the audience stating that a new draft had been written.
The new draft still emphasized "private property rights," which Parker called the main issue at hand: Charities would still need to receive written permission from property owners, but reduced the penalty for failure to do so to a misdemeanor with fines up to $500.
Moreover, registration in a proposed Recognized Charitable Food Service Provider Program would be on a voluntary basis. The program would require charities to follow basic hygiene and sanitation rules, allow the HDHHS to inspect their facilities and clean up after each charitable feeding.
Those protesting the ordinance were not mollified, including Councilwoman Helena Brown, who has been among those council members opposed to the ordinance.
"The City is in dire financial straits," Brown commented at one point during the public hearing, questioning where the City would even pull the funds for enforcing another new ordinance. "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?"
Neil Meyer of the Houston Tea Party agreed: "With every law or regulation, there's always a creeping aspect to it. Once it's in place, it starts piling up and getting more and more restrictive," said Meyer. "We already have laws in place that can actually deal with this," he continued, referencing both state laws on nuisance issues and local laws on trespassing.
Most of the protestors were equally concerned about the "creep" factor in such a broad ordinance, which could easily be applied to other activities: picnics, food distribution in disaster situations and even the Occupy movement.
"We don't really know all of the motivations behind this," said Nick Cooper of Food Not Bombs, a national network of independent collectives that feeds vegan meals to homeless people as a means of nonviolent protest against war and poverty. The Food Not Bombs network was also vital in providing meals to Occupy protesters in Houston and throughout the nation.
"Obviously, [the City] clearly want[s] to control where homeless people are and aren't," he continued. "They want to keep them away from property owners."
Cooper believes there are additional agendas at work, however. "I think there's a good chance that this is a nationwide, coordinated effort to stop Occupy from opening up again in the spring."
Activists in Orlando -- including those from Food Not Bombs -- have been actively defying that city's charitable feeding ban since last summer. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced a similar charitable feeding ban for his city earlier this week. Las Vegas passed a similar ban last year, which has since been deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge.
It's this latter argument which drew many people to protest the ordinance on Tuesday. Mayor Parker argued that City property is, indeed, private -- it's owned by the City, she reminded people -- and that the owner of City property should have the same rights as any homeowner or other private property owner.
"It's a mistake to conflate city property with my front yard," said Raj Mankad, editor of Rice University's Cite Magazine, as he addressed the Council in response to Mayor Parker. "They're completely different kinds of property. City land is public space; there's a different history and a different body of laws that apply in public space."
"It's protected by the First Amendment," Mankad continued. "We have a right to gather in public spaces without restrictions. And this isn't just about food. It's about communion."
Another protester, Darin Williams, simply wanted to know why the City is attacking people who are helping the homeless instead of helping the homeless itself -- the people who need it the most. "This is more about controlling where the homeless are in the city than anything else," Williams said.
Mayor Parker has asked the City Council to delay consideration of the redrafted ordinance until after she returns from a business trip to Brazil, which will be at the end of March.
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