Local activists attempting to hand out food and gifts were shocked on Thursday afternoon when Houston police forced the homeless to throw away the donations. Around 1 pm on Thursday, several individuals met in downtown Houston to distribute plates of hot food, blankets, and other supplies to the city’s growing homeless population. Soon after, Houston police arrived on the scene of two different intersections where the homeless advocates were giving out gifts and food.
According to witness testimony posted on Facebook, the police instructed the homeless to throw away everything they had been given. “Not only were the police called, but they brought a large waste management truck and are forcing the homeless to throw away their food, pillows and other items,” reads one post.
A video from an ABC13 social media correspondent shows the police and trash vehicle parked under a freeway while a man narrates the situation. “Covers, Blankets, different things like that, pillows. They are throwing all of that away,” he says.
Shere Dore, a local activist who works with several organizations, including Food Not Bombs Houston, was involved in the food sharing and says the throwing away of the gifts was uncalled for. “I’m highly disturbed because lots of these items were not only given to the homeless by the community, but some of the blankets and jackets were literally purchased by homeless advocates like myself,” Dore told Anti-Media. “HPD and the City of Houston are taking our cash and throwing it in the trash. At what point will our police stand up and say that this is wrong to do to people?“
Only moments before throwing away the gifts, the Houston police stopped Dore and a fellow advocate. Dore said her friend was taking photos of the police vehicle when the officer began questioning them, claiming someone had called and complained about people feeding the homeless. In a video posted on Facebook, Dore tells the officer she will feed the homeless whether it is legal or not.
These types of situations are likely to increase in Houston due to a 2012 city ordinance prohibiting the sharing of food with more than five people at a time without fulfilling certain requirements created by city council. The controversial measure, known as the “Anti-Food Sharing” ordinance by critics, was passed in 2012 despite resistance from one of the largest coalitions of political, activist, and religious organizations in Houston. The criticisms of the ordinance range from beliefs that it represents an attack on the homeless population to assertions it is another example of government restricting freedom.
The ordinance requires applicants to fill out a form and seek permission to feed someone while on someone else’s private property. If you would like to feed someone in a public park you must fill out another form. The city argues that feeding the homeless food that has not been cooked in a certified kitchen could spread illness and that feeding them is only enabling homelessness. Although Houston police have yet to issue a citation for violation of the ordinance, it has been an issue of concern among activists since the moment it passed. In late November, ABC13 reported that activists delivered 75,000 signed petitions to City Hall calling for the repeal of the ordinance.
As Houston prepares to host the National Football League’s Super Bowl 51, there is concern that the homeless population will be forced out of the downtown area or subject to increased harassment from the police. In November AP reported, “fences have gone up and dozens homeless people living under a Houston freeway overpass have been ordered out amid speculation the city is trying to make the area more presentable as it prepares to host the Super Bowl early next year.” The Texas Transportation Department claims the move was not related to the Super Bowl and insists they were responding to safety concerns for drivers and pedestrians.
If the City of Houston is attempting to remove the homeless for their incoming sports event/ economic boom, it would not be the first. In April 2016 the International Business Times reported on the Brazilian government’s attempts to beautify parts of Rio at the expense of the homeless and other at-risk groups.
“‘Cleaning the streets,’ as the project is euphemistically known, is not an effort to haul garbage but to sweep away homeless people and drug dealers — including the often drug-addicted children who live on the sidewalks of some of Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
Advocates for homeless youth say children are being detained arbitrarily by police — or in some cases simply vanishing. They warn that the “cleanup” is likely to make life worse than ever for the thousands of children who have already been forced out of their homes by abuse or desperate poverty.”
Rio and Houston are not alone in their mistreatment of homeless individuals. In October 2014, the National Coalition for the Homeless released a report that found 21 U.S. cities have passed measures restricting feeding of the homeless since January 2013.
As we enter the “holiday season,” take a few moments to reflect on whatever abundance you have in your life and think of those who have less. If the police, city officials, and sports-obsessed public have their way, those without a home (by choice or circumstance) will be harassed, pushed out, and eventually rounded up. Let’s each do what we can to prevent this nightmare from becoming reality.