Atlantic Cities

Why U.S. Cities Have Been Making it Harder to Feed the Homeless

Why U.S. Cities Have Been Making it Harder to Feed the Homeless
Reuters

Every night around 6:15 p.m., the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition parks its truck on the same street corner in Los Angeles – because, of course, people need to know where to go – and begins serving meals to the homeless. Often 200 of them in a night.

The scene has increasingly frustrated the neighbors, as Adam Nagourney describes in the New York Times. They're upset that the homeless then linger in the neighborhood with nowhere to go. They're upset by the noise. No one comes right out and says this, but it's easy to imagine that they're upset about their property values, too.

As a result, two Democratic city councilmen have introduced an ordinance that would ban the public feeding of the homeless in Los Angeles, in a bid to push such efforts indoors.

What's most surprising about the story, though, is that Los Angeles is hardly an outlier. In the last few years, cities across the U.S. have been adopting new laws limiting what and how charitable groups can feed the homeless (New York City's take has been typically Bloombergian: Last year, the city outlawed food donations to shelters out of concern for its fat and salt content).

As Nagourney writes:

Should Los Angeles enact such an ordinance, it would join a roster of more than 30 cities, including Philadelphia, Raleigh, N.C., Seattle and Orlando, Fla., that have adopted or debated some form of legislation intended to restrict the public feeding of the homeless, according to the National Coalition of the Homeless.

“Dozens of cities in recent years,” said Jerry Jones, the coalition’s executive director. “It’s a common but misguided tactic to drive homeless people out of downtown areas.”

“This is an attempt to make difficult problems disappear,” he said, adding, “It’s both callous and ineffective.”

Such a law would be particularly notable in Los Angeles, a city where temperate weather has drawn one of the largest homeless populations in the country. As homelessness nationwide has been trending downward, L.A's homeless population has continued to grow.

The frustrated neighbors have some legitimate concerns about a service that brings hungry people into a neighborhood without the capacity to care for their other needs (or the systemic causes of their hunger). But these laws also look like attempts to push the homeless out of public view. If a city can't get rid of these people, in other words, maybe it can get rid of the activities that so visibly attract them.

Perversely, this means outlawing some forms of charity (or raising the bar to provide it by forcing organizations to rent a storefront instead of a truck).

In fighting against a similar ordinance adopted in Philadelphia last year, the ACLU raised another objection: Feed the homeless in a centrally located public place, and that bread line draws attention to the issue of homelessness in a way that out-of-sight soup kitchens cannot.

Top image of a woman waiting for a Thanksgiving meal to be served to the homeless in Los Angeles in 2010: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

Join the Discussion