In 2014, three people were arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for attempting to provide food in a public space to people who were homeless. At the time, the city had a law which required a permit for sharing food in public. In August of this year however, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that feeding the homeless in public spaces is protected by the First Amendment. It declared that “sharing food with another human being is one of the oldest forms of human expression’, according to Kirsten Anderson, lead attorney for the group which challenged the ordinance.
While I am grateful for the court’s ruling, I am both amazed and saddened by a question it raises: We needed a court to tell us this?
Apparently so, as according to Newsweek, dozens of municipalities throughout the country have similar laws, in addition to ones prohibiting sleeping outside and living out of personal vehicles. Combined, this reflects an increasing trend toward what has been referred to as “the criminalization of homelessness”. This despite the fact that, contrary to one of the rationales often stated for these laws, the majority of those who are homeless and hungry in our nation are not in those circumstances due to either their own volition or a refusal to, as that condescendingly ugly retort goes, “get a job”.
Instead, the majority of the homeless and hungry here consists of the mentally ill; veterans who we have been more than happy to let look out for us in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, but who we have not looked out for upon their return; those who did “get a job” but still can’t afford housing with what they make; and children.
In a nation where most of us profess belief in God, and most of those identify themselves as Christian - a nation where an even greater percentage of our elected leaders proclaim those same two things - this is not a faithful response. And as we approach another Thanksgiving, it is particularly unfaithful, given that Thanksgiving for those of us in the Christian tradition isn’t about offering a sense of general thanks for what we have, but giving thanks specifically to God - a God we see and hear through the life and teachings of a Jesus who fed the hungry without conditions, and cared for the poor, the homeless, and the physically and mentally ill.
This Thanksgiving then, let’s not just be grateful to God for what we have been blessed with, but also call on our leaders to stop criminalizing poverty and homelessness, and instead advance laws and policies that will make it possible for those same blessings to flow to all of God’s people.