July 20, 2011
In Florida, people are being arrested for giving food to people who are homeless. That’s right, for providing food to malnourished people. The City of Orlando has been targeting Food not Bombs, a community group that, twice a week for the past 5 years, has been providing meals to homeless people in parks. By June 15th of this year, 15 people had been arrested. The penalty for violating the Orlando ordinance is 60 days in jail, a $500 fine, or both. This kind of ridiculous policy and practice raises a couple of issues for me.
First, we have to address the criminalization of homelessness as a serious problem. Most people don’t consider law enforcement when thinking about our response to homeless. Shelters and day programs are usually what come to mind. But, criminalization of homelessness isn’t just an American issue; we’re equally good at this in Canada. Ontario, for instance, legislated the Safe Streets Act over ten years ago to address panhandling and squeegeeing (many communities across Canada have followed suit), and in Toronto police continue to issue thousands of Safe Streets act tickets (not to mention tickets for other misdemeanors) to people who are homeless and without means to pay the fines. In response to this, there is a growing body of research on ticketing and the use of law enforcement to address homelessness, and the bidirectional relationship between homelessness and prison, that attests to the highly problematic (and unethical) nature of this ‘response’ to homelessness.
The second issue to consider is the nutritional vulnerability of people who are homeless. While many of us may believe that the nutritional needs of homeless people are met through charitable food services, the reality is quite different. In fact, Val Tarasuk’s research on youth homelessness and nutritional vulnerability shows that it doesn’t matter whether young people get all their food in agencies, or from the proceeds of panhandling, they are quite likely to be malnourished, and this at a time when they are growing and really need appropriate and adequate food.
A new report from Victoria highlights the link between homelessness and nutritional vulnerability. More than this, the report reminds us that a person’s lack of food isn’t solved once they become housed. In fact, when homeless people do become housed, a large number continue to live in extreme poverty, and after the rent, utilities and other necessities are paid, there is often very little left for food. The use of food banks in Victoria and other communities continues to rise.
If we want to support people who are homeless in an ethical and humane way, we need to begin by treating them as people. Criminalizing homelessness, and failing to address nutritional needs of particularly vulnerable people is no solution, and this is something no one should be proud of.