Miami Considering Punishing Those Who Feed The Homeless

Posted: March 30, 2010 in Bureauacracy, Civil Rights, Compassion, Discrimination, Government, Homelessness, Hunger, Morality, Politics, Religion

If Miami City Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff has his way, it may soon be illegal for regular citizens to feed the homeless. Violators will be fined and perhaps even face jail time.

Chairman Sarnoff has already drafted an ordinance and plans to introduce it to the city’s commission next month.

According to an article in the Miami Herald, the ordinance, if adopted, would prohibit Miami citizens from feeding the homeless unless they’ve attended a "food safety course" and conduct the feedings only in locations specifically designated by the city. Those folks would also have to bring along porta-potties and sinks.  

The proposed ban on the public feeding of the homeless stems from complaints by property and business owners in downtown Miami.

Their main gripe, according to the article, is "… about the trash and refuse and even human excrement" left behind after the feedings.

To be fair, I can understand their point of view. There is a push to revitalize Miami’s downtown area. All of the trash left over from the public feeding is counter-productive to that effort. And, I’m sure that’s the line of reasoning the city basing the ordinance on.

On the other hand, I can also understand the point of view of those who are feeding the homeless.

The majority of the feedings occur on Sunday afternoons by members of local area churches. To them, feeding the homeless is part of their religious beliefs. As one woman from the International Ministry of Jesus Followers puts it, "We’re doing God’s work.”

There were two things which I found of particular interest in the article.

First, Miami’s proposed ordinance is based on a Dallas ordinance that was enacted about four years ago.

Under Dallas’ law, folks who feed the homeless in public are subject to fines that could reach as high as $2000.

Oddly enough, Dallas isn’t doing much fining of folks who feed the homeless in public due to a federal lawsuit brought against the city by two churches who are asserting that their religious freedoms are being violated.

I suspect that if Miami’s proposed ban on public feedings is adopted, they will face similar legal challenges.

The second thing I found of interest was the mention of Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust chairman Ron Book.

I’ve mentioned Mr. Book in a previous post. And, despite his being Miami’s self-proclaimed number one advocate for the homeless, I have found some of his statements regarding the city’s homeless population to be a bit distasteful – and, in a few instances, misleading.

True to form, regarding his support for the ban on public feeding, Mr. Book engaged in a bit of bureaucratic propaganda and fear-mongering.

According to the article, Mr. Book maintains that "… street feedings only encourage homelessness." defines "encourage" in the following manner:

verb (used with object), -aged, -ag·ing.

  1. to inspire with courage, spirit, or confidence
  2. to stimulate by assistance, approval, etc.
  3. to promote, advance, or foster

By what he is asserting, Mr. Book is hoping to gain public support for the ordinance by implying that the continued public feedings will cause the numbers of homeless to increase.

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box, but I’m pretty sure that street feedings do not encourage homeless.

Just basic common sense makes it difficult for me to believe that any of Miami’s citizens are so excited at the prospect of getting a free sack lunch on Sunday afternoons that they’re leaving behind the comfort of their homes and deliberately becoming homeless.

Homelessness is a complex social issue. Folks find themselves becoming homeless for a myriad of reasons.

This nation is still undergoing economic turbulent times. Many individuals and families who never thought they’d ever be among the homeless are finding themselves out on the streets – literally.

Although I can understand Miami’s dilemma, rather than punishing folks for reaching out to help their fellow citizens, I hope that they can find a humane way of working in tandem with them.

I think that Miami Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Ben Burton summed it up the best,

"This isn’t a time to criminalize people who are trying to help the poor.”

  1. Rev. Cynthia says:

    I have the sinking feeling that what Mr. Book intended by his comment, “… street feedings only encourage homelessness” was actually similar to “don’t feed the pigeons” – a case of not wanting to have people, who are homeless, hanging around that part of town or “in their backyard” at all. It seems to be a “Pavlov’s Dogs” sort of theory – feeding people, who are hungry, @ the same time & same place will create the behavior of them showing up. In fact, this seems to be the case for providing no services to the homeless, thinking that if there are no meals & no beds, out of necessity they will go elsewhere to find those things.

    Do these “powers that be” never entertain the concept of Karma? “What goes around comes around” – indeed!

  2. Bri says:

    It has a very “Please don’t feed the animals” feel to it :`(

    • michael says:

      I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head.
      What is so disheartening is that Miami’s local government has repeatedly tried using ordinances that penalize and restrict “quality of life” activities as a method of “dealing” with their local homeless – all to no avail.
      It seems to me that if Miami were to put as much effort into actually ending homelessness as they do in trying to curtail the activities of the homeless, their city would have less homeless on the streets and in their shelters.

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