Why is Feeding the Poor Illegal?

Many individuals are being ticketed for feeding the poor in their cities. The story from San Antonio of Chef Joan Cheever is an illuminating example:

On the night she was ticketed, Chef Joan Cheever’s menu included fresh vegetable soup, lamb meatballs over wheat pasta, braised Southern greens, and a salad with roasted beets. She plans to appear in a San Antonio court to contest the $2,000 citation. Her offense: serving food to a line of grateful homeless people.

She’s been donating similar meals every Tuesday for a decade. But neither the commercial kitchen where she prepares her food nor the licensed food handlers who serve it nor a food truck that meets all health codes nor her status as a local celebrity excused her apparent failure to obtain a special permit for giving away food free of charge. “Do Good Samaritans get tickets in San Antonio?” she asked the police officer who wrote her up, as she recalls the exchange. “Yes,” he replied.

It’s easy to condemn local governments for ticketing Good Samaritans, but it’s important to understand the reasoning behind laws that restrict feeding the poor. Many local officials and local residents feel that feeding the poor and homeless poses a danger for their community. They view homeless people the same way they view stray animals: if you feed them, they’ll stick around. They want the poor fed perhaps, just not in their back yard.

That’s actually a valid complaint, though it sounds heartless. Where there is a large population of homeless people, you tend to also have a higher rate of petty crime, drug use, vandalism, and all the other unpleasant and unsightly accompaniments of vagrant lifestyles.

But is the solution for this to outlaw feeding the poor? No. In most cases, private charity is the best and most effective means to help the homeless out of homelessness. The attitude that taxpayer funded public charity efforts are adequate salves to poverty begin to sound like Scrooge’s exclamation: “Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?”

The problem with outlawing private charity is not that it drives charity into the public sector. It’s that, by driving charity into the public sector, it actually kills charity. The proper avenue for charity is individual and private. This might result in some uncomfortable neighborhood situations, but relegating charity to the public sector merely for our comfort will only result in the continuation and exacerbation of poverty. It’s time to make feeding the poor legal.