No Unapproved Good Samaritans


To my shame, I missed it. Only yesterday did I learn of the Homeless Persons Memorial Day. And while I knew Houston regulated food sharing with homeless people, I was taken back to learn that some 70 other cities similarly ban unapproved acts of charity.

political-crime-in-actionA Christmas Eve article by Antimedia claims that Houston Police descended on homeless advocates and coerced homeless people to throw out ‘hot food, blankets and other supplies’ given to the homeless. One advocate claims that the police were good enough to provide a large, waste management truck to dispose of donated food stuffs and items.

Houston requires registration to distribute food to more than five people. Local government denies curtailing food distribution. Its website insists that ‘the city is trying to improve the quality, quantity and distribution of food for the homeless.’ The registration page provides further information and additional links.

The stated rationale may be good, but the National Coalition for the Homeless questions city motives.

‘Cities tend to claim that they are acting in concern for the well-being of its homeless residents. In most cases, they believe these restrictions will ensure that they are receiving safe food in an area where they can be connected with social services. These are fine ambitions, but so rarely the reality.’

‘Most often, there is an objection to having groups of homeless people congregate in public spaces, where the ‘quality of life’ of housed citizens may be affected. In major tourist destinations, especially, cities fear the impacts of visible homelessness on their economic viability. By criminalizing food-sharing in public spaces, they are able to push the homeless out of sight, much like similar efforts to criminalize panhandling and/or lying down in public places.’

Houston Ordinance No. 2012-269 gives the city power to do exactly that.


The City of Houston ordinance was strongly supported by District I rep. James Rodriguez.

“What this ordinance is trying to do is treat our homeless with dignity, to be able to be more efficient and to protect public property,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not saying you can’t feed them, but let’s just work together to help clean up the trash.”

It isn’t clear whether ‘trash’ references packaging containers or ‘them’ Rodriguez says ‘you can’t feed.’

For ten years, I attended a church with a very active pantry. And it hosted community meals. At those meals, I made it my job to greet and spend time with every guest. I heard stories. As necessary, I made referrals. I learned that even tracking where meals are offered is extremely taxing. And walking long distances between meals [often with children] takes a heavy toll. Energy must be allocated carefully between essential tasks.

For two thousand years, Christians have practiced Jesus’ example in Jesus’ name by feeding the poor hungry. As hunger increases and programs on which the needy rely dwindle, Jesus’ teaching matters all the more. Kate Randall provides essential perspective on the 500,000 homeless people in the United States. This matter requires more exposure.

This was taken about halfway up the block on the east side of Broadway, between 79th and 80th Street. It's at the north end of the "Filene's Basement" store on the corner, and it's a place where I've often seen homeless people holding up a sign that asks for assistance... With very rare exceptions, I haven't photographed these homeless people; it seems to me that they're in a very defensive situation, and I don't want to take advantage of their situation. But something unusual was happening here: the two women (who were actually cooperating, and acting in tandem, despite the rather negative demeanor of the woman on the left) were giving several parcels of food to the young homeless man on the right. I don't know if the women were bringing food from their own kitchen, or whether they had brought it from a nearby restaurant. But it was obviously a conscious, deliberate activity, and one they had thousght about for some time... What was particularly interesting was that they didn't dwell, didn't try to have a conversation with the young man;they gave him they food they had brought, and promptly walked away. As they left, I noticed the young man peering into his bag (the one you see on the ground beside him in this picture) to get a better sense of the delicious meal these two kind women had brought him... ********************** This is part of an evolving photo-project, which will probably continue throughout the summer of 2008, and perhaps beyond: a random collection of "interesting" people in a broad stretch of the Upper West Side of Manhattan -- between 72nd Street and 104th Street, especially along Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. I don't like to intrude on people's privacy, so I normally use a telephoto lens in order to photograph them while they're still 50-100 feet away from me; but that means I have to continue focusing my attention on the people and activities half a block away, rather than on what's right in front of me. I've also learned that, in many cases, the opportunities for an interesting picture are very fleeting -- literally a matter of a couple of seconds, before the person(s) in question move on, turn away, or stop doing whatever was interesting. So I've learned to keep the camera switched on (which contradicts my traditional urge to conserve battery power), and not worry so much about zooming in for a perfectly-framed picture ... after all, once the digital image is uploaded to my computer, it's pretty trivial to crop out the parts unrelated to the main subject. For the most part, I've deliberately avoided photographing bums, drunks, drunks, and crazy people. There are a few of them around, and they would certainly create some dramatic pictures; but they generally don't want to be photographed, and I don't want to feel like I'm taking advantage of them. I'm still looking for opportunities to take some "sympathetic" pictures of such people, which might inspire others to reach out and help them. We'll see how it goes ... The only other thing I've noticed, thus far, is that while there are lots of interesting people to photograph, there are far, far, *far* more people who are *not* so interesting. They're probably fine people, and they might even be more interesting than the ones I've photographed ... but there was just nothing memorable about them.