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Judge orders city to temporarily stop ticketing group feeding the homeless in landmark move

For years, 'Food Not Bombs' has been providing free meals outside of Houston's Central Library and got several tickets for it.

Judge orders city to temporarily stop ticketing group feeding the homeless in landmark move
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | RDNE Stock Project, Houston Chronicle | Arturo Michel

As much as goodwill gestures are appreciated, they are often condemned on grounds of public safety. Certain laws restrict kind-hearted people from extending their volunteer work in public areas considering it a commotion. That was the case for the volunteer group, "Food not Bombs" based in Houston. While the volunteers have been ardently trying to feed the homeless, the city authorities were keen on fining them for the same, as per the Houston Chronicle. However, the ongoing case between the goodwill organization and the City seemed to have received an order in the organization's favor on 14th February.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Katrin Bolovtsova
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Katrin Bolovtsova

Food Not Bombs have been operating in Houston, Texas since 1994 and after nearly three decades in 2023, they started getting tickets for serving free meals outside of the city's Central Library. So far they've received 96 tickets which made them file a lawsuit against the city authorities who claim that their meal service was a constitutionally protected protest. A statement issued by the City Attorney Arturo Michel to the news channel read, "Food Not Bombs has a First Amendment right to express its views. The City has an equally important right to ensure public safety and safeguard public health. Mayor (John) Whitmire is committed to working together to resolve differences and agree upon an ordinance that allows expression and provides a safe and healthy environment at the central library and elsewhere for the homeless and their neighbors."


 
 
 
 
 
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Food Not Bombs must pay a bond of $25,000 for the judge's order to be put into action and the bond will be lowered to $2,500 if the group agrees to provide garbage receptacles and hand sanitizing stations while ensuring the streets and sidewalks aren't blocked. "We are on the road to not only removing this ordinance but setting a pathway for other cities to do the same against anti-homeless and anti-food-sharing laws and in general to fight against class war," the organization captioned their Instagram post announcing their win.


 
 
 
 
 
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The controversial law in discussion is Houston's food-sharing ordinance which was passed in 2012. As per the law, it was illegal to offer more than five free meals to the destitute without permission from the property owner even if it is a public property - in this case, the sidewalk and the street. However, the then mayor let informal volunteer groups serve meals outside Central Library but the mayor who held the office in 2023 refused to allow it. The Food Not Bombs group was asked to relocate to the Reisner Street lot. However, the volunteer group argued that the Central Library was its customary location because of the area's better visibility to execute their protest. 

Food Not Bombs aimed to protest against government spending on wars rather than fulfilling the basic needs of its citizens. But their right to protest was cut short by these fines and charges. The city attorneys defended that the group's activities threatened public health with risks of food poisoning. However, the volunteer group's attorney countered that in the past two decades, Food Not Bombs has never secured any food safety complaints. Also, they pointed out how other volunteer groups offering free meals without the objective to protest against the government's spending were encouraged and not fined. With powerful arguments, the charity organization managed to secure a temporary win and is rooting for its permanent freedom to serve the homeless.

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