A War on Homelessness, or a War on the Homeless?

by Nick Cooper

On March 2, Hank Rush, the CEO of Houston’s Star of Hope Mission—who makes a quarter-million dollar salary for his work with the poor—joined several other homeless service leaders in signing a commentary in the Houston Chronicle. They gave their support to a new law that would impose a $2,000 fine on unpaid volunteers for sharing home-cooked food with the needy in public.

Going so far as to criminalize bringing a box of fruit into one’s house to keep it out of a hot car for a few hours before sharing it, the law would have been laughable if it weren’t a threat to the food supply of a vulnerable population.

Wondering why homeless service providers might consider supporting a law that was so potentially devastating to Houston’s homeless population, activists began researching Star of Hope, which describes itself as a “Christ-centered community.”  The first news item that came up was that mayor Annise Parker had announced a massive public/private partnership with the Star of Hope just four days before the commentary was published. $3 million initially, and $1.5 million per year thereafter, was dedicated to a “Sobering Center” for people found drunk in public.  Touted as a cheaper and less punitive alternative to incarceration, the project would benefit Rush and other signatories to the commentary.

Taking an Oath to Serve…the 1%: Annise Parker is sworn in two years ago. Photo: Jenny Antill/Houston Chronicle

The Mayor, ‘Balance,’ and Her ‘Emergency’

“I perceive this ordinance as trying to balance the rights and the needs of different groups of people,” Parker said.

Apparently, for her, the homeless are the ones holding the upper hand in this imbalance, and the “victims”—the downtown business owners—require the city’s emergency help.  The “need” of property owners is being trampled by the need of the homeless to eat, sleep, and excrete.

Parker compelled the city council to act urgently to control trash and excrement—not by putting out more receptacles and toilets, but by policing the food supply.

Massive backlash from volunteers of all stripes forced the mayor to change the law, stripping it of the important details.  It no longer explicitly criminalized the sharing of homemade food, but since the process for obtaining permission was never disclosed, it was anyone’s guess what the criteria she or subsequent mayors might choose to use for granting permission.  The new version of the law temporarily hid the most egregious details, and the mayor falsely and unilaterally declared that a compromise had been struck.

When it was finally their turn to speak, the homeless opened up their hearts to a city council that had probably already made up their minds.

“If it weren’t for these truly gracious people, I would not eat,” 58-year-old James Lira told the city council.

“When has America stopped being the land of the free and the home of the brave, and become the land of the oppressed, and the home of the economic slave?” asked Maurice Samuel O’Neal, who identified as being on and off the streets for the last 40 years.  Many in the audience appeared affected hearing the slavery comparison by an older Southern African-American man.

The most devastating critiques of the mayor’s proposed law came from the kids.

“Mayor Parker, did you eat breakfast this morning?” one of them asked.  ”Did you have to get permission from the city?”

Why Don’t you Just Shut Up and Get a Permit? It’s Easy!

Requiring permission for groups to serve has precedent. In San Francisco in 1988, the permit requirement was used to criminalize and arrest hundreds of food sharing volunteers. The mayor then, like Parker now, described the process as “easy,” but that was not the experience of volunteers in San Francisco.

“It was clear that the purpose of the permit process was to make it impossible for Food Not Bombs to share food and information in public,” said Keith McHenry, the co-founder of the Food Not Bombs movement.

Cashing In

Star of Hope wasn’t the only agency to benefit from new funding, and it wasn’t the only organization whose leader signed onto the Houston Chronicle commentary to support the original draconian version of the law.
The Coalition for the Homeless is at the center of an influx of cash to Houston so big it makes the millions involved in the Sobering Center look like chump change.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) channels $1.5 billion dollars a year into programs and non-profits.  This month, Houston and eight other cities with large homeless populations begin receiving federal money for the express purpose of “ending homelessness” in a few years through “Rapid Rehousing.”

To kick off this program, the Coalition launched a series of breakfasts for Houston’s homeless providers. Titled “Take Your Seat at the Table,” the participants were welcome to a slice of the city’s funding pie.

Participants of the breakfasts were told that along with the money comes an entirely new system. Houston’s homeless services are being rapidly transformed into a system with centralized intake for all homeless, a new authority that links funding with performance evaluations and a constantly expanding database called the Homeless Management Information Systems.

Frank E. Perron, III, from Occupy Houston. Photo: Emily DePrang

Just Follow the Bacon and Eggs

Shockingly, the underwriter for the first of two Coalition for the Homeless breakfasts was Brookfield Office Properties, which owns twelve skyscrapers downtown. Paul Layne, the regional head for Brookfield Properties’ Houston operations, also sits on the Board of Directors of the Coalition for the Homeless.  As the largest commercial real estate owner in Houston’s downtown, Brookfield is notorious for its central role in perpetuating the below-poverty wages among downtown custodial workers, who make an average of $8,600 a year.

Brookfield also happens to own Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street activists were encamped for months. (Originally called Liberty Plaza Park, the square was named for Brookfield co-chairman John E. Zuccotti after it reopened following 9/11.)

In October, Brookfield wrote to New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly demanding the eviction of the activists. This connection seemed to confirm the suspicions of many involved with Occupy Houston that the law against feeding the homeless was intended to target them.

“This whole issue may have never been about ‘feeding the homeless’,” said longtime community activist Ray Hill.  ”It may have been about shutting down the Occupy Movement that has done more than anything else to put a light on the injustice and excesses of big business greed.”

Many Houston activists who assume that Brookfield doesn’t value the needs of the homeless any more than the custodians working in their own buildings are outraged to discover their participation in Coalition for the Homeless programs.

And What About the Volunteers About to Be Criminalized?

Food Not Bombs volunteers, including myself, sit in these meetings a bit baffled. On July 1, our volunteer work in the streets of Houston, along with the work of dozens of other organizations, will be a crime.  We don’t have salaries, budgets or pieces of the pie.  We don’t need money or bureaucracy, and we certainly don’t need to be permitted.  We do want to see homelessness eliminated, but not by punitive measures.

Food Not Bombs was the first group sharing food with the homeless after Hurricanes Ike, Rita, and Katrina. FEMA referred people to us. If this law is enacted in July, and by late August a hurricane comes through, even under emergency conditions it will still be a crime for us to go out and share food. Even if police were willing to look the other way during a hurricane aftermath, we might no longer have the intact relationships, food supply and institutional structure to resume our operations after months of being criminalized.  We rely on an influx of new high school volunteers, and parents might think twice about having their children participate in a group that might be illegal. Making volunteerism a crime will damage Houston’s infrastructure. Volunteers are a vital part of of a system that helps nourish a vulnerable population, that without our efforts, would turn to increasingly to shoplifting, dumpster diving and panhandling.

There are over sixty local groups speaking out against these laws. From the conservative Houston Area Pastor Council to the Catholic Worker Movement, from Occupy Houston to the Tea Party, from the Harris County Republican Party to the Green Party, from the Nation of Islam to the Hare Krishnas, the diversity of this loose coalition may well be unprecedented.

Groups are organizing volunteers to take on this struggle.  If you are interested, please contact[email protected].

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