Houston

Food Not Bombs volunteer cited for feeding homeless Wednesday night in downtown Houston

The City of Houston sent out a notice this week that public feedings outside the Downtown Library near City Hall are prohibited and should instead be done at 61 Riesner Street, a location just west of downtown. 

 

Members of Food Not Bombs received citations for feeding the homeless on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. The city began enforcing an ordinance that bans people from feeding homeless people on public property.
Rebecca Lavergne
Members of Food Not Bombs received citations for feeding the homeless on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. The city began enforcing an ordinance that bans people from feeding homeless people on public property.

A volunteer with an organization that feeds the homeless outside the downtown Houston library on McKinney Street said they’ll continue to distribute food despite a citation from the city.

On Wednesday, police issued a citation to Benjamin Franklin Craft-Rendon, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs, for violating the city's Charitable Feeding Ordinance.

The City of Houston sent out a notice this week that public feedings outside the Downtown Library near City Hall are prohibited and should instead be done at 61 Riesner Street, a location just west of downtown.

Mayor Sylvester Turner stated during his State of the City Address he wanted to restore the central library Downtown and make it more family-oriented, which is an area a lot of homeless individuals tend to congregate at.

Food Not Bombs, an organization that's been feeding the homeless there for almost two decades, doesn’t agree with the rule and continued providing meals this week.

"Honestly, I was surprised, this ordinance has been on the books for over 10 years, and to my knowledge this is the first time they actually ever cited anyone for it," said Craft-Rendon, who’s been with the organization since the early 2000s.

Craft-Rendon said when they showed up Wednesday night, officers were already on the scene and handed them a copy of the city's feeding ordinance. Volunteers with the organization said they don't understand why the city is now enforcing the ordinance that was passed under former Houston Mayor Annise Parker in 2012.

"I'm really not sure," they said. "Mayor Parker ended up backing down and maybe Mayor Turner wants to finish it, or maybe they're planning on some new developments Downtown."

Nick Cooper has been working with the organization since the late 90s. He said it's not a crime to feed people in need.

"Finally after 11 years they've actually enforced their law, but it’s unconstitutional," he said." This law is not going to hold up, it was written by people who basically didn't know what they were doing."

He said instead of Mayor Turner telling the organization to move to the location the city recommended or threaten them with tickets – he could work with the group if they have the same mission in mind to help the homeless.

"I think he’s a real failure as a politician because he's never done that," Cooper said. "He's met with us, but instead of asking, hey you know you guys are being helpful, what do you need, how can we work this out, can you go to a nearby park or something like that — he just threatens us with cops and tells we have to move to the HPD parking lot — which is not a good option for us.”

Volunteers said there is a concern that the citations could steer some volunteers away from sharing food, but for Craft-Rendon it's a risk they're willing to take.

"Some people are going to be unable to share food because they're not in a situation where they are prepared or have the privilege to be able to take that risk," said Craft-Rendon. "I wouldn’t want to pay this fine obviously and I plan on fighting it, but the city is going to make its decisions and I’m going to make mine.”

The organization said they used to be stationed in another area not too far from the library, which is now fenced off and they don't feel comfortable moving to what they said is an HPD parking lot.

"We've had people get unruly and have mental health issues act up and there's a terrible history of that," said Craft-Rendon. "Police officers aren't trained to deal with any of those problems and there's no reason to trust them to deal with it."

Randy Kallinen is a Civil Rights Attorney, he said the ordinance goes against the group's first amendment rights.

"Houston’s anti-food sharing ordinance is Unconstitutional," he said. "Food Not Bombs’ food sharing in Florida has been determined to be Free Speech by the very conservative United States 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and if the Supreme Court can decide that refusing to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple is Freedom of Religion then certainly feeding the hungry and poor is too."

Craft-Rendon said although they were given a citation, they will be outside the Downtown library handing out food again on Friday. According to Kallinen, Craft Rendon will have to appear before the Municipal Courts this month, but they're going to file a motion to have the ticket dismissed. The fine could be anywhere between $40-$2,000.