Food Not Bombs sues the city again

We’ll see how it goes.

Food Not Bombs, a group of volunteers who serve meals outside Houston Public Library’s downtown branch, filed suit Tuesday against the city, alleging that a food-sharing ordinance is unconstitutional. The suit claims that the city’s decision to begin ticketing them for feeding people in need at the location violates their First Amendment rights.

The suit argues that the group’s food-sharing events, which it says began in 2005, are a form of protest, which is protected under the First Amendment. “As their name makes clear, Food Not Bombs is not a charity, but instead a political association expressing a political message that government entities should divest money from war, policing, and weaponry,” the suit says, “and instead redirect that money to meet basic human needs.”

The city did not respond to a request for comment.

Randy Hiroshige, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project who is representing the plaintiffs in the suit, said that going to the courts was the next step following the project’s Jan. 8 petition. The organization had helped collect more than 24,000 signatures voicing support for ending the Houston law limiting sharing free meals. The Texas Civil Rights Project is a legal nonprofit whose lawyers often take on suits against policies they believe are unconstitutional.

He said the petition had been filed in the hopes that a new mayoral administration and city council would choose to stop enforcing the ordinance. Instead, tickets have continued to pile up: Since March, Food Not Bombs volunteers have racked up nearly 90 tickets seeking at least $21,000 in fines. Volunteers are largely asking for jury trials for the tickets, and at a trial, a jury could move to fine volunteers up to $2,000 per incident.

The new lawsuit joins an existing suit filed in March of 2023, which made similar arguments. While that suit also sought for a judge to order the city to stop enforcing the ordinance, it was made on behalf of one member of Food Not Bombs. Hiroshige and Remington Alessi, who is also representing Food Not Bombs, said they wanted to file another suit on behalf of the group as a whole since they are all being impacted.

The Houston law in question is an ordinance against giving away meals unless you have permission from the property where you’re doing it, even if the property is public. It was put in place by City Council in 2012 but largely had gone unenforced for over a decade, municipal records show. The city began ticketing Food Not Bombs in March of 2023.

Around that time, the city began funding meals on the same days that Food Not Bombs serves. The city-funded meals are in a police parking lot near the municipal courthouse, where the city says Food Not Bombs can serve without being ticketed. In response to the 2023 federal suit, the city said ticketing Food Not Bombs was part of “Houston’s governmental obligations to ensure food safety.”

There was also a lawsuit filed in 2019 that I presume went nowhere since it wasn’t mentioned in either this story or the Houston Landing story, which has a copy of the new lawsuit embedded in it. There were also state lawsuits filed in 2017 and 2018 that wound up getting dismissed. I note that one of the plaintiffs in that 2018 suit is still active with Food Not Bombs, based on the coverage of this new lawsuit.

One thing I learned in the Chron story is that Food Not Bombs is a national organization and that its chapters in a couple of other cities have successfully litigated similar issues. That they claim this is an infringement of their free speech and not a matter of regulating charitable activity appears to be the key to that.

A subsequent story in the Houston Landing goes into the history of the ordinance in question.

Former Mayor Annise Parker announced the ordinance in July 2012. In September of that year, Parker provided Food Not Bombs permission to hand out food near the Central Houston Public Library downtown – a location where they have been serving the hungry for nearly two decades.

In an interview with the Landing, Parker said the ordinance was part of different steps the city was taking to improve its response to homelessness at the time.

Feeding people with food insecurities was unorganized, inefficient and at times illegal, she said. Organizations feeding the homeless and food insecure were mostly church-based, and the activities occurred randomly, mostly around the holidays. Food distribution wasn’t consistent or dispersed efficiently throughout the city. It mostly occurred in the downtown area, she said.

The ordinance requires individuals who want to provide food to more than five people at a time to receive the property owner’s consent in order to hold a food-sharing event.

“The illegal part of it was that they were doing it on other people’s property,” Parker said. “And so despite what groups like Food Not Bombs says, which isn’t true, it is absolutely legal to feed any number of homeless people in Houston and anytime you want to as long as you do it on your own property or you have the property owner’s permission.”

The city ordinance created a voluntary Charitable Food Service Provider Program, which includes four steps for organizations to be certified by the city to share food. The Houston Health Department and the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County lead the program.

Between March 2023 and Jan. 18, 54 organizations have registered with the program, said Renee Beckham, chief sanitarian in charge of administering the Charitable Feeding Program for the Houston Health Department.

The voluntary program requires organizations to obtain registration; go through training; receive a property owner’s consent; and schedule the food events.

“The purpose of the food safety is to educate people who really don’t deal with food safety on a day-to-day basis,” Beckham said. “They don’t work in restaurants, or grocery stores, anything like that. So we need to get that knowledge to them so they don’t wind up making any of the homeless people sick.”

In 2023, Turner began enforcing the charitable food ordinance and designated one location, 61 Riesner St., for food sharing. The city voided the previous permission Parker provided Food Not Bombs. City officials say the group has been illegally feeding the homeless near the Central Plaza – Houston Public Library four days a week.

Parker said she allowed Food Not Bombs to operate at the library because it was not a random charity, but rather a group that had a regular program and operated consistently, she said.

“This was not about trying to stop people from feeding the hungry. It was, let’s have a logical process,” she said. “I gave them permission to do it on the library Plaza but it was granted permission and that permission can be removed at any time.”

The permission was conditional on the fact that they clean up after themselves and handle the food safely, she said.

Read on for more. Food Not Bombs is a very sympathetic actor here, and I don’t see the point in repeatedly ticketing them. I also think, and thought at the time, that what the city was trying to do was quite reasonable. I would greatly prefer to see cooperation and not litigation, but here we are. I’ll keep an eye on this.

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