Help the homeless–go to jail?

It’s a common practice of the media to declare any disagreement in politics a “War on X.” But as much as that phrase might be overused—there really is a war on the homeless.

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Take last week’s story from Daytona Beach, Florida. A local couple have spent more than a year providing food to the homeless in a city park. Once a week, they set up shop, feed about 40 people, and then head home.

Each week, Debbie and Chico Jimenez, who spearhead the project, make sure to clean up after themselves when they leave the park: “When we leave, there isn’t a scrap of paper on the ground, nothing. Within an hour and a half, they’re done and gone.”

Delivering these meals is only a start for the Jimenezs. Debbie and Chico run “a ministry that helps in ways beyond meals. They’ve used donations to help pay for hotel rooms, power bills, backpacks and bicycles.” Though their operation is small, it can be life-sustaining or even life-changing for those it helps.

This is a win-win for all involved, right? People are being helped, relationships are being built and no one’s getting hurt.

And then the government has to get involved.

In its efforts to centralize government control programs designed to help the homeless, the City of Daytona has begun to fine voluntary efforts to feed or aid the needy. Yes you heard that right—good Samaritans who are trying to help the less fortunate are getting ticketed by the police for doing so.

Conveniently, these fines also happen to ensure extra funding for city social programs.

When confronted with the injustice of the situation, local Police Chief Mike Chitwood said he’s just enforcing the law: “The ordinance is there, so if we catch you, we’re going to cite you.”

He added that he’s completely fine with helping people, as long as the government coordinates the effort: “If you want to feed people, and you want to do a good, Christian act, we encourage you to coordinate with the social service agencies.”

This lunacy in Daytona is far from an isolated incident.


All in all, more than 50 major cities have enacted some variation of a ban on public feeding of the homeless in recent years.

Want to voluntarily help people in need? Tough luck.

The goal, of course, is to drive homeless people out of the city. This might sound good to residents who don’t want to see homeless people on their block, but can be devastating to homeless people trying to get back on their feet.

Many homeless people stay in the city where they were last housed and employed, because their local connections give them a better chance of getting back in the job market. Driving them out of town with aggressive regulations makes recovery far more difficult.

In addition to public feeding bans, many cities have developed more… creative ways to make life more unpleasant for their homeless population:

  • Pensacola, FL at one point banned homeless people from using blankets or any other sleeping materials. (Mercifully, the outrage over this ordinance led to its repeal.)
  • In New York City, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned food donations to homeless shelters, “because the city can’t assess their salt, fat and fiber content.” I’m sure the homeless are very grateful that they were saved from a too-salty dinner.
  • And Osceola County, FL spent more than $5 million to jail just 37 homeless people for victimless “crimes” like sleeping in public. For that kind of cash, they could have purchased each homeless person a $135,000 house with no mortgage!

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The National Coalition for the Homeless developed a list of 10 different types of anti-homeless ordinances which are popping up in cities nationwide. (View 1-5 here and 6-10 here.)

While police should certainly enforce laws against actual crimes, that’s not what’s happening here. City governments across the country should back off and let people who want to voluntarily take care of the needy do so.

“These people have become our friends. They depend on us. It’s not like they’re just ‘some people,’” said Debbie Jimenez, the woman from Daytona who was fined by police for her charity work.

“We just want to help,” she added.

Why shouldn’t she be allowed to do that?

What do you think?

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