In Houston, homelessness volunteers are in a stand-off with city authorities
By Evan Garcia
HOUSTON, Texas, May 11 (Reuters) - In Houston, Texas, a group has been in a stand-off with local authorities over their feeding of homeless people in front of the city's library.
The Houston chapter of Food Not Bombs, an international organization which promotes sharing vegetarian food with others, has been issued tickets by police 23 times since March.
The group argues that the city's homeless rely on them and they have been feeding them four times a week for more than ten years in that location. But local authorities say it has made the area unwelcoming for families and put them off visiting the library.
As the United States battles with an epidemic of homelessness in the wake of the pandemic, the clash goes to the heart of difficulties authorities and advocates face in balancing the desire to help those in while also considering local residents.
The citations issued by Houston police carry a fine of between $50 and $2,000, under a 2012 city ordinance that requires anyone feeding more than five people on public or private property to obtain permission from the property owner.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he started enforcing the ordinance in March because the environment surrounding the library - located across the street from Turner's City Hall office - had deteriorated.
"Families, parents, are more reluctant to bring their children and to walk through that population," Turner said. "And so we are losing a critical asset for families, for children, and for others who to utilize the library."
He said the group could instead use an alternative location - the parking lot of a Houston police station, where the city provides food to the homeless.
Food Not Bombs volunteers said they had seen any evidence of an uptick in violence in the area of the library and that they were comfortable with the suggested alternative location, feeling the police would have too much sway there.
"We come out here, we serve, we go, and we do it with dignity. And then you got a lot of homeless that are scared of police officers," said volunteer Shere Dore, adding that many experiencing homelessness also rely on the library to charge their phones, access the internet, use the restroom or simply escape the weather.
For Billy Joe Garcia, a 38-year-old man from Stafford, Texas, who has experienced homelessness for the past two years, the services provided by Food Not Bombs offer him sustenance and social connection.
"Having a place like here to go to ... is crucial," Garcia said. "Because you get to see people and you get to have a decent way of living."
Soon after Food Not Bombs received their first ticket on March 1, a volunteer filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Houston, challenging the constitutionality of the city's food-sharing ordinance.
In the meantime, Turner is committed to enforcing the law.
"We have said to those who have been feeding people in front of the central library... that that will be more," Turner said. "And if you persist, even after we have provided a much more suitable location, then citations will be issued."
(Reporting by Evan Garcia, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)
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