In almost every city in the United States, there is a sizable group of people living on the streets because they are too poor to have any other options. According to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in a year. The issue of homeless people is one too big to be ignored, and one that often invites a response of compassion from people with a wide variety of backgrounds.

Many people from both religious and secular backgrounds have responded to the crisis of homelessness by giving out donations of things that can meet tangible needs of the very poor, including food. However, giving food can sometimes be controversial, particularly the mass feeding of people in large groups.

Several cities have passed laws either restricting or criminalizing the giving of food to the homeless, and trying to figure out why can help people determine ways to respond, and work to treat poor and homeless human beings with the respect and help they deserve.

The Extent Of Laws, and Their Effects

In this past year, 33 cities have considered laws that make food-sharing programs more difficult, joining more then 50 cities with anti-food sharing laws, including Philadelphia, Phoenix, Orlando, Houston, and Cleveland.

Houston’s law demands that anyone giving free food to more then five people could be fined as much as $2,000, unless they first registered with the city. A recent law in Fort Lauderdale, FL requires all feeding sites to be 500 feet away from each other, and 500 feet away from any residential property.   In enforcement of these laws, members of groups in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale have been arrested for giving out food in parks.

A Debate About the Effects Of Feeding

Although some of this law may seem to be rooted in compassion fatigue, a denial to see homeless people as human, or a not-in-my-backyard response, there are people offering arguments why unlimited food sharing is not always the best thing for the homeless.

Mayor’s offices and city councils behind these laws say that want to encourage more homeless people to seek out indoor shelters, where they will be safer and have access to more long-term care, and where they can eat safely in situations with better hygiene. In their view, giving people food in parks or on the street is simply enabling people to stay in unhelpful situations.

However, homeless advocates, like the National Coalition for the Homeless argue that this reasoning is based on an unrealistic understanding of the conditions and desperation of the homeless. They argue that people are going to be on the street, inevitably, because shelters aren’t able to take everyone in, and those people left outside the system will starve to death unless their tangible needs are met.

They argue that restricting the ways people can give food serves as a deterrent, diminishing the number of groups that will give food, and thus meaning more homeless will go hungry. They argue that food sharing does not perpetrate homeless, and that criminalizing the outward sign of poverty does nothing to solve  the root causes.

How To Respond

By educating the public about the true causes of homelessness, poverty, and hunger, we can help to change the conversation and culture to one that is more compassionate to people’s true needs and realities.  The homeless population faces a lot of stigma and misinformation, so helping to appreciate and hear their story is an important first step.

Both short-term and long-term solutions to the problem of hunger are needed, so it must be made possible for well-intentioned people to give food to those in need, but there must also be more money available for food assistance programs.