How to Feed Houston's Homeless

One might think having lots of people turn up to feed the city's homeless wouldn't be a problem. But Houston Mayor Annise Parker says it creates a separate problem — too many people and organizations are converging in one spot to hand out food.

"Organizations pile on, on top of each other, and that's when you have food waste. Four churches — they know that on this particular location there's a congregation of homeless people and they all want to show up at the same park. This allows us to, well, spread it out a little bit."

In addition to food waste, the food creates waste. Food containers and scraps get thrown on the streets and in parking lots and yards. So much so that the East Downtown Management District spends about $175,000 a year picking up the trash.

Councilmember Ellen Cohen says photos of the litter shown during a public comment session drove the point home.

"I thought that was one of the most compelling pieces of evidence, for me. Because it's not just that someone's private property has a lot of trash on it, it means that the homeless that are living near there and are being fed near there are really being jeopardized in terms of their own safety."

Houston's proposed ordinance would require organizations to register with the city before handing out food. At least one person in the group must attend a food safety class provided by the city. And the food cannot be prepared or stored in a private residence.  But several members of council think the ordinance reaches too far.

Councilmember Oliver Pennington questions how the rule will be enforced when well-meaning private citizens hand out food.

"One question is, if you give one hamburger is that not organized, but if you give three is that organized?"

Councilmember Jack Christie suggests instead of regulating the organizations, regulate the waste.

"You can get Waste Management, for free, to put out receptacles in the appropriate areas where we're getting trash, unwanted overuse of food and such. And give some responsibility to the homeless that if it is not cleaned up and use the receptacles, there will be regulation. So it's almost punitive if the littering continues."

After more than an hour of feedback from councilmembers, Mayor Parker says she will tweak the ordinance to address some of their concerns.

"It is really telling that every non-profit agency with a stated mission of dealing with the homeless has signed off on this ordinance."

The Mayor says her main concern is for organizations to coordinate and address homelessness collectively instead of piecemeal. Council will vote on the ordinance and any amendments in two weeks.

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