Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the coalition and the editor of the report, says that as cities have felt more pressure to make economic development and tourism priorities, they've decided that food sharing programs — especially those that happen in public spaces and draw dozens, if not hundreds of people — are problematic.
"We consider measures like the one in Fort Lauderdale to be criminalizing being homeless or helping the homeless," says Stoops.
And yet, Stoops argues that the measures will ultimately be ineffective in addressing the real problem: homelessness itself.
"Cities' hope is that restricting sharing of food will somehow make [the] homeless disappear and go away," Stoops tells The Salt. "But I can promise you that even if these ordinances are adopted, it's not going to get rid of homelessness."
The measures that restrict food distribution tend to take one of two forms: new rules on the use of public property and new food-safety regulations. Salt Lake City, for example, now requires that anyone preparing and serving food to the homeless get a food handler's permit.
In some cities, like Charlotte, N.C., it's not the local government that pressures the food groups to relocate or limit their programs — it's community groups practicing "not in my backyard" politics, or NIMBYism, according to the coalition's report. (The coalition notes that its report focuses on cities it has been able to track, but that many more cities may have anti-homeless-feeding legislation that the coalition may not be aware of.)
Robert Marbut, a consultant based in San Antonio, helps cities and counties deal with the problem of homelessness. He says he falls somewhere in the middle in this debate. While he's opposed to criminalization, he thinks "street feeding" programs that distribute food in parks and under bridges can do more harm than good.
"Street feeding is one of the worst things to do, because it keeps people in homeless status," he says. "I think it's very unproductive, very enabling, and it keeps people out of recovery programs."
Instead, he thinks food sharing programs should only be located near what he calls the "core areas of recovery": mental health, substance abuse and job readiness services. Otherwise, he says, homeless people may spend more time pursuing food than the services that will help them get back on their feet.
Stoops says that he agrees there should be options for the homeless to eat meals indoors — with heat and air conditioning at shelters, churches and other sites. But he points out that those programs can't meet the full scope of needs.
"Not everyone wants to go to a shelter or a meal program. In the best of all worlds, the homeless agencies get out of the office and go with ministry programs to bring services to where people are," he says.