Twelve people, including a 14-year-old kid, were arrested and given a misdemeanor citation this past weekend in El Cajon, California, for distributing food to the homeless.
Those arrested were taking part in an event organized by a group called Break the Ban, a name which references the El Cajon City Council’s decision to prohibit the distribution of food on any city-owned property. The city passed the ordinance in October of last year.
About 13 to 15 people were at the event, passing out food and toiletries. 40 more people attended, including several lawyers, but were not arrested because they were not actively passing out food. Some of these people carried signs that said things like, “Feeding the hungry is not a crime.”
Shane Parmely, one of the organizers, said that the event served as a stand to contest the ordinance:
“It was absolutely necessary to beak this law until they were willing to enforce it, and, now that they have, we will continue this fight in court.”
The city claims that the ordinance was a way to protect the public from hepatitis A, but many argue that it is a ‘punitive’ measure to criminalize the homeless.
Several local charities, along with Break the Ban, plan to challenge the law in court. Break the Ban already has another scheduled food distribution planned for later this month.
El Cajon, which is home to about 100,000 people, has nearly 25% of its population in poverty. The rate of homelessness has risen from 191 in 2015 to over 300 in 2017. The city has already criminalized sleeping on the sidewalk, panhandling, and sleeping in tents on pubic ground.
When an outbreak of Hepatitis A happened last year, infecting more than 500 and killing 20, nearly all of which were homeless people, the city took measures to contain the outbreak to the homeless, rather than try and mitigate it completely.
A similar case was brought against the city of Dallas, Texas, after they placed restrictions on passing out provisions to homeless people. In that case, the city was forced to roll back its restrictions and pay a quarter-million-dollar settlement.
Despite research showing that it’s actually three times cheaper to give people housing than to try and arrest or hospitalize them, many local governments continue to criminalize homelessness in some fashion. The Trump administration’s budget plan for 2017 calls for reshaping housing rules in ways that would lead to the eviction of hundreds of thousands of families. Fines and jail terms simply cannot solve homelessness, and stricter rules can’t force families to make more money to pay for basic living expenses.