Reading through the latest report from the National Coalition for the Homeless might spark one of those moments when you wonder, what would Marie Antoinette say? French peasants who had no bread to eat were so enraged by rumors that their queen uttered the phrase “Let them eat cake” that she ended up decapitated. Well, the coalition’s modern-day researchers found that since January 2013, 21 cities have restricted or flat-out banned feeding the homeless at all—and 10 municipalities have similar ordinances in the works.
At the heart of the bans and restrictions, write the authors, is the misguided belief that feeding people who are sleeping on the streets or in shelters encourages homelessness. Apparently, some of our nation’s politicians and policy makers are convinced that thousands of Americans are so eager for a free bowl from a soup kitchen that they’ll quit their jobs and begin sleeping in doorways and on bus benches to get it.
According to the report, a consultant on homelessness named Robert Marbut visited more than 60 communities in 2013 and 2014, giving talks about how dishing out hot meals to homeless people enables them to remain homeless.
“If you feed people in parks or on a street, or drive your car up and give 14 meals out of the back of your car, all you’re doing is growing homelessness,” Marbut said in one speech, according to the report. “If you want to dramatically change how [a city] deals with the homeless, align your feeding with all the holistic services. And the only place people should ever be fed is where you’re in a 24/7 program that’s holistic that deals with all the issues.”
In contrast, the coalition’s researchers note that programs that provide people with meals are often “the only way some homeless individuals will have access to healthy, safe food on a given day.” They go on to clarify that people become or remain homeless because of “lack of affordable housing, lack of job opportunity, mental health or physical disability”—not because someone’s giving them a plate of chicken.
Bans and restrictions on feeding folks who live on the streets are just one example of the draconian laws being passed nationwide to criminalize homelessness. A report released in July by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that 76 percent of towns surveyed have prohibited begging.
Providing people with a place to live—whether it’s a tiny house like the ones being built in Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore., or a small unit in an apartment building, as has been done in Charlotte, N.C.—and connecting them to those holistic services is what’s been proved to alleviate homelessness.
The coalition also recommends adding homeless people to antidiscrimination laws, which could protect them from punitive bans. But as long as elected officials and policy makers continue to try to drive away people on the street instead of helping them, these kinds of restrictions are likely to keep popping up. Unless, of course, Americans have a Marie Antoinette moment and decide that enough is enough with crushing folks who need help the most—no decapitation required.