A local volunteer said he will continue feeding the homeless outside Houston’s downtown library after a jury ruled the city's ordinance unconstitutional. Despite the ruling, the city said it's not backing down.
The City of Houston and Food Not Bombs have been in an ongoing battle over rules for feeding the homeless downtown. The city began issuing citations for the first time earlier this year, after the organization had been feeding the homeless outside the downtown library for two decades.
Phillip Picone, the volunteer who was cleared by a jury on Friday, is just one of more than 40 volunteers who have been ticketed. Benjamin Franklin Craft-Rendon, another volunteer with the organization, was the first to receive a ticket in March and they later filed a lawsuit.
"It was our first case that went to trial, the opening trial, if you will, there’s 44 more as of today, and no restraining order in place, so we continue to fight," said Picone.
Picone says he’s thankful for the outcome.
"It was a moment to celebrate, it was a big relief to get that verdict," he said. "The line of people there just shows that the need exists, and the city doesn’t seem to really care about addressing that need; it seems that what they care about doing is pushing them out of sight. Addressing the issue that way and we just don’t feel that that’s the way to do it."
The city's ordinance prohibits the feeding of more than five people outside unless permission is given by the property owners and should instead be done at the city's designated feeding site on 61 Riesner Street just outside downtown. The site is where the city's Dinner to Home Program is stationed.
A statement from the city's attorney Arturo Micnele reads: "The City of Houston intends to vigorously pursue violations of its ordinance relating to feeding of the homeless. It is a health and safety issue for the protection of Houston's residents. There have been complaints and incidents regarding the congregation of the homeless around the library, even during off hours. No municipality prevails in every prosecution of a category of violations. Houston prevailed in the first matter and expects to do so in several others. The City has carefully balanced competing concerns, ensuring through its own program and though its significant allocation of funds that there are alternative, nearby feeding locations that have been well attended and well received."
Paul Kubosh, the attorney representing the volunteers, said they will keep fighting the tickets and he will keep supporting the volunteers.
"The next is another jury trial so line them up, here we go and once again we’re looking for the sympathetic jurors," he said. "They have a passion to end poverty and that moves me. All of these folks out there, for over a decade, during COVID, were feeding people just because there was a need."
Mayor Sylvester Turner is term-limited and he exits office next year. The organization said they plan to challenge the ordinance to the next Mayor that takes office.
“We have certainly plans to talk to the mayoral candidates Whitmire, Kaplan, Sheila Jackson Lee, about this issue," said Civil Rights Attorney Randall Kallinen. "When you ever pull the populace or there’s any indication from the general populace, it’s overwhelmingly majority is against this law and the unanimous jury verdict is just another example of that."
Kubosh said another trial is set for Thursday.