Saturday, February 22, 2014

147.8 - Outrage of the Week: Criminalizing feeding the homeless

Outrage of the Week: Criminalizing feeding the homeless

Last August, the city of Columbia, South Carolina, approved a new plan giving its homeless population an impossible choice: leave or be arrested. They set up this system where if you were homeless and found downtown, you would be arrested. And where they wanted you to go was this place, this homeless shelter on the outskirts of town which would only hold about one-sixth of the estimate homeless population of Columbia - and at this homeless shelter, you couldn't leave the premises without prior permission and could not in any event leave on foot.

So basically, if you were homeless, your choice was to be arrested downtown or essentially imprisoned outside it.

Well, now the city is now taking even more steps to criminalize homelessness and prevent people from assisting them. It has begun to strictly enforce an old and formerly seldom-used ordinance that requires groups of 25 or more to obtain a permit and pay a fee before gathering in a public park.

A number of charities had at different times been setting up food pantries, distributing food, in the city's parks. One of these groups is the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, an informal nationwide network of people providing meals to the hungry. This group has been serving food to the homeless in Finlay Park in Columbia every Sunday for the past 12 years. But now, they're being told by the city "oh no, you can't do that any more unless you apply for a permit at least 15 days in advance and pay a $120 fee - each time." For the math-challenged among us, that would cost Food Not Bombs $6,240 in fees per year to continue its good works.

Food Not Bombs is not a 501(c)(3), it's just a group of individuals, private individuals, who bring food, prepare the food, and distribute the food, and then clean up afterward and they've been doing this for 12 years. But now Columbia, South Carolina, is saying "oh, no, that means that there are icky homeless people around so you can't do that any more unless you suddenly get really rich."

Stopping groups like Food Not Bombs from doing things like this, from feeding the homeless, is precisely the point. Precisely the point.

By the way, Columbia, South Carolina, is not the only city doing things like this; Raleigh, St. Louis, Harrisburg, Los Angeles, Miami, Tampa, Palo Alto, lots of cities are doing everything they possibly can to make homelessness invisible, telling homeless people, in effect, "Just go away" where they are not directly trying to force them out. We are back to the not-distant days of dealing with homelessness by pretending it doesn't exist.

They call it good policy. I call it a moral outrage.


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