Outlawing aid for homeless people isn’t the answer, Charlotte advocates say

·6 min read

Calling for “a heavier dose of tough love,” Charlotte City Councilman Tariq Bokhari floated the idea of making it a misdemeanor for individuals to give food, money or clothing to people who are homeless.

Bokhari, a Republican who represents District 6 in south Charlotte, offered the suggestion during a presentation at this week’s council meeting about the post-pandemic future of uptown. He said people should instead direct money and items to established nonprofits.

“They’re only making themselves feel good,” he said Monday night. “They’re hurting the ultimate (homeless) folks. Perhaps we explore making that a misdemeanor.”

There is no indication such a proposal would find much support from Charlotte elected officials. But similar laws in other cities have been controversial and faced legal challenges. And local groups working with the homeless community here said penalizing those wanting to help won’t fix root causes of the issue, like employment, access to health care or the lack of affordable housing.

In an interview Wednesday, Bokhari said he has been interested in exploring such an ordinance, but said he hadn’t done the research to know if he would support it, calling it a “last resort.”

He said his comments are a call to “think differently,” as government, nonprofit and business leaders are currently crafting a five-year plan to address and prevent homelessness.

Bokhari said direct money or food donations keeps people from getting those needs met through more established programs, which also offer broader housing services.

“People have to get this message that it’s part of the problem. When it’s a direct donation or gift to somebody, that gift is keeping them out of the system,” he said.

Some who work directly with Charlotte’s homeless community dispute this notion, saying people can need more structured services and still benefit from a meal or small donation. And people wanting to help should not be banned, or possibly prosecuted for giving directly.

“If there is someone standing outside asking for money and it’s laid on your heart to give them money, what should stop you?” said Deborah Woolard, founder of Block Love Charlotte, which works on the ground with people who are homeless.

“You shouldn’t feel like ‘I’m going to go to jail because I helped someone,’ because you never know if they truly are on their last (dollar), if it’s money needed to eat.”

Bokhari’s comments went largely unchallenged during Monday’s meeting except for Councilwoman Renee Johnson, who said it would be “something that I would never support, especially when there’s so many systemic barriers to people who are homeless.”

Lack of adequate health care, support for people leaving incarceration and other resources make getting and keeping housing a challenge, Johnson said.

“Everyone needs a little help sometimes,” she said.

But it’s reignited a central debate for those looking to help: is direct giving the most effective way?

Bokhari’s remarks sparked a reaction online from grassroots groups and others who work directly with people who are homeless.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, who frequently shares stories from people she meets while donating to people living outside, sent a tongue in cheek tweet warning she may be headed to “(the slammer) for multiple violations of hot sandwiches, ding dongs, assorted cokes, chips, blankets, tents, bus tickets, socks, hand warmers, rain ponchos, hats, gloves, hoodies, and hugs.”

Feed the Movement, a grassroots group that distributes food, money and other necessities, posted on Instagram that it has “absolutely no intentions of changing anything” about how it operates, saying direct financial payments are a way to meet people’s immediate needs in different ways than nonprofits can.

Laws and legal challenges

Ordinances targeting people offering help are less common in the United States than those for people who are homeless like bans on camping, panhandling or loitering, said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center.

“Cities are endlessly creative trying to figure out ways of pushing people experiencing homelessness out of public view without actually addressing the underlying problem of homelessness,” Tars said. “If they can apply half the energy to actually solving homelessness as they do to solving the problem with the visibility of homelessness, then we would have solved homelessness by now.”

But there are laws against food sharing in 9% of the 187 cities surveyed in the law center’s 2019 report on the criminalization of homelessness. Many go further than what it would appear Bokhari suggested, to forbid even established service providers from feeding people outside.

Several anti-feeding laws have been successfully challenged in court, as nonprofits, religious groups and others who feed homeless communities argue that prohibiting feeding people infringes on their religious beliefs or freedom of expression.

Public health officials in Missouri three years ago dumped bleach on chili and sandwiches served by a local soup kitchen in a park, citing “public safety” concerns, according to the Kansas City Star. The volunteers continued to serve in violation of those orders.

And in Dallas a federal judge ruled that the city’s homeless feeding ordinance violated a local ministry group’s rights.

While a single meal or clothing donation won’t solve homelessness, Tars said, there are real benefits for those receiving them.

“They are doing everything that they can to get out of homelessness, he said. “They are trying to save up their first month, last month’s rent, (and) security deposit, which is really hard to do when you’re living on the street. Every little bit can help. You don’t have to purchase a meal that night. That’s money that you can put into your savings.”

How best to give?

That doesn’t mean every material item is an appropriate donation.

When Mecklenburg County health officials gave an order in February to clear the uptown tent encampment that had growth through the pandemic, they attributed part of rat infestation to trash and other debris that had accumulated on the site.

One factor, health officials said, was an abundance of items left by well-meaning but misguided donors who brought items people couldn’t use or didn’t need. Food donations without utensils, or clothing in the wrong size or season won’t help, Woolard said.

Woolard encouraged people wanting to help to ask knowledgeable groups or people directly what they need most, but said no one should be discouraged from generosity.

“You don’t want to place the fear in someone’s heart that if they give you’re going to be charged for giving.”

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