HOUSTON — Houston police have ticketed a man for giving food to homeless people outside a public library, provoking outrage from a charitable group and plans to challenge a longstanding city ordinance.
City regulations on who can provide free meals outdoors to those in need were enacted in 2012. The ordinance requires such groups to get permission from property owners if they feed more than five people, but it wasn’t enforced until recently, Nick Cooper, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs, said Thursday.
For decades, the group has provided meals four nights a week outside the Houston Public Library without incident. But the city recently posted a notice at the site warning that police would soon start issuing citations, and the first came Wednesday night.
“That was a moment last night we had been waiting for for 11 years,” Cooper said. “One of our volunteers actually got a ticket for this law, which gives us the opportunity to challenge it in court.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner, in his State of the City address in November, said he wanted the group to relocate.
“We’re going to retake the downtown central library to make it more wholesome and inviting to families and to kids,” Turner said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “That is a major asset of the city of Houston. We have a few too many homeless folk and feeding programs in front of Central Houston.”
In a statement on Thursday, the mayor’s office said the city is now providing meals and other services for homeless individuals at an approved facility located about a mile north of the library.
The change was made in part because of an increased number of threats and violent incidents directed at employees and visitors to the library by homeless individuals, the mayor’s office said.
“We simply cannot lose control of the iconic and historic building that is intended to be a special and safe place for all. The alternate location has the infrastructure and amenities to accommodate the charitable feeding organizations and our brothers and sisters who are in need of a hot meal and services,” the mayor’s office said.
Cooper said that the approved location isn’t ideal because it is close to a police station. Food Not Bombs members are willing to discuss alternatives, he said, but in the meantime hope to prevail in court. In 2021, a federal appeals court sided with a Food Not Bombs chapter in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in a similar case.
“If they’re going to have the law and just use it to threaten people and intimidate people, it’s about time they wrote a ticket for it, because this law is not going to stand in court,” Cooper said. “This law is garbage.”
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