An organization that feeds the homeless outside the downtown Houston library on McKinney Street is challenging the city's Charitable Feeding Ordinance. Benjamin Franklin Craft-Rendon was given a citation by the city for distributing food outside the library and filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday.
"We're here today because the city of Houston has cruel law where you could be fined and jailed for merely feeding people who are hungry," said Civil Rights Lawyer Randall Kallinen during a press conference on Friday. "Benjamin has filed a federal lawsuit in this very courthouse and we’re going to ask a judge and a jury to decide this case."
The City of Houston issued an updated notice last week warning citizens that public feedings outside the library are prohibited and should instead be done at the city approved site located at 61 Riesner Street. Per the notice, anyone who violates the ordinance after February 24, would be subject to a fine, but the organization did not agree with the city’s orders to move.
In a statement, the City of Houston said: "Recently, there has been an increase in the number of threats and violent incidents directed at visitors and employees coming to the Houston Public Library downtown. Parents and families have expressed no longer feeling comfortable visiting the library or holding special events."
But Craft-Rendon said they have shared food in that spot and in the library for over two decades.
"[S]o why now, also I don't see the connection to the plan on housing people – especially since some of the people we share food with have homes, they just don’t have enough money to also buy food," said Benjamin Franklin Craft-Rendon.
Food Not Bombs has been giving out healthy meals at least four nights a week outside the downtown library for almost two decades, and said they've never been cited. The City of Houston passed the Charitable Feeding Ordinance in 2012, under former Mayor Annise Parker's administration, and volunteers said they don’t understand why the city is now enforcing the law now – when Parker backed down against the group.
“Jesus taught his followers to feed the hungry,” said Kallinen in a statement, “State and federal law supports Benjamin’s activities – additionally, Food Not Bombs food sharing has been determined to be Free Speech by the very conservative United States 11th Circuit Court of Appeals."
Craft-Rendon is scheduled for a court appearance on March 17 and due to an ongoing legal battle, his attorney said he was not able to distribute food on Friday and the law goes against the right of free speech.
"I am planning on pleading not guilty and contesting the charge, I have no reason to submit to the I think unconstitutional and cruel law," said Craft-Rendon.
The City of Houston is standing firm on enforcing the ordinance against feeding the homeless outside the downtown library near City Hall. A statement from the Mayor's office said the group can feed homeless at a new location, which is near an HPD station, which Food Not Bombs opposes.
"We want the library to serve as a safe, inclusive place for all to come and visit. That's why we are providing a dedicated, alternative charitable food service at 61 Riesner St. This location has the infrastructure and amenities needed to provide services and food to Houstonians in need. By shifting food services to an alternative location, we can maintain the integrity and historic nature of Houston's Public Library while serving all Houstonians with the dignity they deserve."
The ordinance requires an individual or organization feeding more than five people to get approval by the property owner to distribute food.
Volunteers with the organization say they will continue to distribute food downtown despite the city's orders.