An ordinance to regulate groups feeding the city's homeless to prevent food waste and other negative side effects was suggested at City Council earlier this month. Council was due to vote on it this week. However, judging by feedback from council members, churches and voluntary food organizations, this has not been a well-liked topic. Some of those same people held a rally this week to reinforce their displeasure with the ordinance. As a result of the push-back, Mayor Parker has drafted a new ordinance that's not quite as strict as the original one.
"We started with mandatory coordination. We heard council members. We heard the public. So, our goal is to try to bring people together in some form to coordinate voluntarily."
The original ordinance proposed mandatory registration with the city, sanitary food preparation training and clean up after an event, amongst other things. Now it's been reduced to mostly voluntary participation except for obtaining permission to operate on public or private property. Violating that law would result in a $500 dollar fine. Council member Jack Christie feels that while the various ordinance drafts are well intended, it's not how the situation should be managed.
"But I just don't think an ordinance is needed here. Let's use some common sense and let these people give and get my twenty peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to where I can give those out."
Houston is not alone in suggesting regulations on feeding its homeless. Dallas implemented an even stricter ordinance than Houston's about 5 years ago. Just this week, Philadelphia's Mayor proposed a ban on feeding the homeless outdoors. And recently, New York's Mayor has put a ban on individual donations to homeless shelters. So while every city differs in their problems with feeding the homeless, they all admit there is an issue. This is why Council member Ellen Cohen says something needs to be done.
"Why are we having this discussion? Because we have a problem, and what can we do to make it so that the providers feel that they're meeting their needs to provide services to the community, and that those people in the community that we're sensitive to their concerns about trash and refuse on their property. But most importantly, that we're out there serving those people who are not receiving service and we're doing in a safe manner."
Mayor Parker hopes this delay will allow time to build consensus resulting in a positive outcome.
"We are a rich city. There is food for everyone, and if we just spend a little time on the front end communicating with each other, we can make sure that what we do goes further and serves more."
The ordinance has been tabled and will be re-evaluated over the next two weeks.