Feed a Hungry Person, Go to Jail

Las Vegas, Orlando, and other cities have made it difficult, even illegal, to give food to homeless people in public places. Tulin Ozdeger, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, is critical of such punitive ordinances:

The latest trend of restricting groups that share food with homeless people is truly baffling. Clear gaps exist between the needs of homeless and poor people and federal, state, and local government efforts to deal with homelessness. Instead of embracing private efforts to fill those gaps, cities are now trying to punish those private actors for their good deeds … Instead of wasting law enforcement resources on enforcing these laws … cities should be looking for more constructive ways to grapple with the real challenges facing them. Removing a crucial food source … will not solve the problem. Jailing a homeless person for sleeping or resting in a public space will not make that person go away.

In Steamboat Springs, Colo., two men were recently sentenced to six months in prison for removing food from a garbage can:

Giles Charle, 24, of Sumersworth, N.H., and David Siller, 27, of Wayne, Pa., … were on their way to the Rainbow Family’s annual gathering when they were arrested in June and charged with felony burglary and misdemeanor theft. Authorities said they took five cucumbers, four or five apricots, two bundles of asparagus spears and a handful of cherries from a garbage can at Sweet Pea Produce. The two pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing Wednesday and the felony charge was dropped.

Hunger is increasing in the United States. According to America’s Second Harvest, food is the second-largest family expense and the use of emergency food assistance is growing:

America’s Second Harvest / The Nation’s Food Bank Network provides emergency food assistance to more than 25 million Americans—including nearly 9 million children (36.4%) and 3 million seniors (10%)—annually. Since 2001, the number of clients the America’s Second Harvest Network serves annually has increased by 8 percent … 70% of client households served are food insecure, meaning they do not know where they will find their next meal. 33% of these households are experiencing hunger, meaning they are completely without a source of food.

In June 2002, the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis University published “The Consequences of Hunger and Food Insecurity for Children: Evidence from Recent Scientific Studies.” The report (PDF) notes, among other things:

Even moderate nutritional vulnerability, the kind often seen among 13 million high-risk children in the U.S., can impede cognitive development and impair their capacities over a lifetime. For youngsters whose natural abilities and talents are diminished, the cost is obvious. But the cost also extends to our nation in terms of higher rates of school failure, poorer returns on our
educational investments, and weakened workforce productivity when children reach the age of employment.

How can libraries address hunger? Many sponsor “Food for Fines” drives (which a simple Google search will reveal). In 2001, Amy Ford detailed the Williamsburg (Va.) Regional Library’s efforts in “Food for Fines Drives: Positive PR That Works!”:

We made our Food for Fines system very simple: For each nonperishable food item a patron brings in, we waive the accrued fines on one overdue item, no matter whether it is 5 cents or $15 … We benefit by getting back some late and lost books. Plus we get our delinquent patrons to come back. Many of them feel bad about owing money to the library that they can’t pay back … they do come back, and they feel good about doing something meaningful for their community in the process. We also gain respect from other community entities, which are continually amazed at the countless ways that the library contributes to the public good. Our local nonprofits and charities are very grateful for the help they receive from us. Staff morale improves, and now circulation staff receive far fewer complaints about fines.