“What?!?!” “How did that happen?” “Is that even a law?” “I have never heard of that ordinance!”
These were the responses I heard when I expressed my irate feelings over a local homeless war veteran, James Kelly, who was issued a citation for “dumpster diving” in downtown Houston days ago. As a volunteer of Food Not Bombs and HAP (Houston Advocate Program) my main interest consist of assisting the homeless in utilizing coats, blankets, toiletries and assisting individuals in cutting through the red tape they are often faced with concerning their benefits and more. Because these individuals are homeless, the city and county have a tendency to look down upon these men and women who just need a little help.
In working with Food Not Bombs, I met Mr. Kelly (who calls himself “Bear”) a while back. The first thought when you interact with him: he was a big teddy bear. He is well spoken, cares deeply for others and is highly intelligent. So it was to my surprise when I had arrived at the food sharing Friday night when Bear approached me with a pink piece of paper in his hand. He quietly asked if he could speak to me. We shuffled off to a remote area when Bear opened up a piece of paper, allowing me to read the text. I was appalled when I read the description, “DISTURBING THE CONTENTS OF A GARBAGE CAN IN THE DOWNTOWN CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT.”
Bear stated that there is an individual who purchases donuts and will intentionally discard a bag of donuts for the homeless to purposely find and eat. A gesture most likely done because the City of Houston has made it illegal for any individual or group to feed more than 5-people on public space without being fined up to $2,000 or could be arrested if one failed to comply. Mayor Parker and several council members passed an ordinance April 2012 which became law in July 2012, that made it illegal to feed Houston’s hungry without special permission from Mayor Parker. Months before the ordinance was passed by city leaders, hundreds of citizens flocked to weekly council meetings addressing their distaste and concern for the ordinance. One person after another was consistently ignored by Mayor Parker and Councilman James Rodriguez (District I) who once championed himself in stating, “treat our homeless with dignity, to be more efficient and to protect public property.” Rodriguez spearheaded the anti-feeding ordinance from start to finish with Mayor Parker in constant support of Rodriguez. The city indicated that there was a food safety concern then changed their concern to trash issues although Republic Trash Service had offered to pick up the trash at no cost to the taxpayer, as a way to show support for those who were AGAINST the food ordinance. There are also laws in effect for littering. Food safety concerns need not be pointed at caring individuals who work relentlessly on any given day to serve hot and healthy meals to those who are hungry, but the city should investigate Star of Hope Women’s shelter located on Houston’s east end of downtown. Star of Hope went on record at city council meetings offering their support FOR the feeding ordinance. Many would wonder if SOH cared so much for the homeless, then why would they support the feeding law? Simple: SOH is given funding in accordance with the number of people they serve, especially children. SOH loses funding if others around the city are caring for their needs. After investigating SOH Women’s shelter early 2012, food safety was my top concern as undercooked chicken, undercooked rice, expired can goods, day old bread and milk were served at the shelter. Several women and children would get sick shortly after eating their meals. I had even advised the Mayor’s office that the city needed to make an unannounced health inspection visit to SOH. To date, the Mayor has not responded to my inquiry after reciting my findings. Because Mr. Kelly’s story is gaining momentum and sparked an outrage among the citizens, Star of Hope’s Scott Arthur who is the Director of Public Relations went on record earlier today on 92 FM Houston News stating that many homeless do not utilize shelters because they do not want to adhere to rules and structure and that SOH is waiting by should the homeless need their help. However, this could not be further from the truth. Along with my investigation at SOH, it was disturbing to see so many homeless families mistreated by SOH volunteers and staff, almost treated like criminals. In bringing this matter to the attention concerning a few staff members who would act subservient and talk down to those in dire straights, I was met with finger pointing which positioned towards the homeless as if to say, they more than likely did something in order to be mistreated, snapped at, rudely spoken to and so on. Staff attitudes were not dealt with. SOH also tends to rely on “God’s work” in assisting the homeless as they hold weekly church services in their facility in which you either have to attend or one must get off the SOH grounds altogether, only being able to return after services are over. Seems hypocritical. Over and over again, many homeless stress that they do not utilize shelters because they are not only mistreated but made to feel as if they are not worthy of those things that make us feel special as a human being, and most of all, stripping their dignity. Star of Hope loses credibility as they should focus on their own issues rather than speaking of the homeless in this manner.
Moments after Mr. Kelly handed me his citation, I went to Facebook to express my outrage over the matter, requesting that we citizens assist him. Within minutes, Mr. Kelly had obtained civil rights attorney, Randall Kallinen. By Sunday afternoon, a copy of Mr. Kelly’s citation and story went viral. By Monday morning, media outlets were scrambling to get the story. The story was even listed on the Drudge Report. A story that has gained momentum and public outcry as the homeless continue to be targeted. It takes a soulless individual to pick on the less fortunate as we’ve seen Mayor Parker do in the last year. Even after the feeding ordinance became law, over 34,000 petitioned signatures were submitted to the city in the hopes to get the item on the November 2012 ballot & allow the citizens to vote however Mayor Parker dragged her feet and offered numerous excuses to why she would not get this done on time.
It is now election season as Mayor Parker is in the hopes to win her 3rd term. The dust seemed to have settled shortly after the petitions were continually ignored however today, the anti-sharing law is now the hot topic. If people are unable to freely give people food, then homeless will have to resort to looking in garbage cans in effort of finding something to eat. Now our homeless are targeted for doing that. At this point, one should question whether it is a good idea to have a mayor in office who can apply these kinds of laws on the homeless. As a political leader, that is about as low as one can go.