Punishing Those Who Feed the Homeless

Is feeding the homeless in a public park a crime?

Apparently so. Many cities, particularly in the South, have enacted legislation to make it a criminal offense to feed the homeless. According to a story reported by the Associated Press, in Fort Lauderdale, 90-year-old World War II veteran Arnold Abbot has been given citations during the last several weeks for feeding the homeless. Abbot has been feeding the homeless for more than 20 years, along with providing them with training in a culinary school and job placement. In Orlando, in Houston and in Columbia, South Carolina, feeding the homeless in a public park without a permit is also subject to a fine.

It shouldn’t be.

That’s not to say that the public doesn’t have a right to have parks that are clean, accessible and family-friendly. Our public parks are not places for people to eat, sleep and live on a long-term basis. Allowing that to happen would make parks unsafe for those who use them as living quarters and for the general public.

But fining or arresting those who are only trying to help individuals in desperate need of a meal is shameful. Feeding the homeless isn’t like throwing breadcrumbs to pigeons or peanuts to squirrels. These are human beings who are in need of a meal. They are not using donations to buy illegal substances or alcohol. If people are lining up for a meal, which is not likely to be a five-star gourmet creation, they are hungry. Period.

The cities which are arresting or fining volunteers who are feeding the homeless don’t want to see their parks as a great big homeless shelter. Understood. But while denying a meal to the poor and indigent, they are also in denial of a major homeless population in our nation’s cities. The burgeoning homeless population in our parks and other public areas is a symptom of a problem, not the root of the problem.

Many of our homeless want to work but can’t get a job. As the U.S. manufacturing base has shriveled and blue-color jobs have gone overseas, there’s less opportunity for those who lack a college education or technical skills. Even though the nation has crawled out from the recession, many lost their jobs and then their homes to foreclosure. Meanwhile, rents nationwide have skyrocketed, making it extremely difficult for people to feed themselves and their families and at the same time pay for housing.

There are also, among the homeless, numerous individuals who can’t hold down a steady job due to mental illness or other ailments Then there are our nation’s veterans, many of whom are suffering from PTSD or other conditions that make it difficult for them to integrate back into society and the workplace. For many, homelessness is not due to laziness, but is a consequence of disease.

That’s why kicking out the homeless from parks will not eradicate the stark reality that millions of Americans have nowhere to live. It will only cause those who are down and out to seek housing elsewhere, in other public places — on subways, under bridges, in tunnels. We have a moral responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves.

Despite the economic recovery and slight decrease in homelessness in the U.S., in some states, where job growth has been sputtering, homelessness has been on the rise. In California alone, according to a report by the California Youth Project, 270,000 students in the public school system experienced a period of homelessness during the 2012–2013 school year.

And not finding places for individuals and their families to live only deepens and perpetuates the cycle of homelessness. Itinerant children have a much lower graduation rate than those who have a true home to return to and do their homework. Those homeless children who don’t graduate high school will, on average, have significantly lower earning power when they enter the workforce, giving them higher odds to be part of the homeless ranks when they get older.

Simply building more free housing isn’t the answer, either. We have to give the homeless an incentive to become fully contributing members of society. We need a more holistic approach that will give them a much higher standard of living if they become workers than if they remain recipients of government largesse.

For those among the homeless who are capable of acquiring new skills, free college tuition or vocational training should be readily given. Such a short-term investment benefits everyone: a trained individual will have ample career opportunities upon graduation, and will not want to indefinitely live off taxpayer-funded government programs. At the same time, clean, comfortable, affordable housing should be made available for several years so that these students have an environment conducive to studying.

Until local and state governments develop the resolve to attack homelessness at its roots, we will have those who are living without shelter, often without enough to eat.

Homelessness can happen to anybody. We shouldn’t punish those who are compassionate and empathic enough to recognize that.