New ordinance makes donating food easier in Dallas

Just in time for the season of giving, the city of Dallas has now made it legal to give the homeless food with the help of National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty organization.

Stu Mair

Just in time for the season of giving, the city of Dallas has now made it legal to give the homeless food with the help of National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty organization.

Savannah Whitmer, News Editor

While the holiday season is often a time of giving to those in need, until recently, Dallas residents were discouraged from providing food for the homeless due to city restrictions. These restrictions were amended in December by the City Council with the help of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), and have been replaced by more lenient measures, which include rules that address sanitation issues.

“Our goal was a very practical one,” director of advocacy for the NLCHP Jeremy Rosen said to the  Dallas News in December. “We have a set of clients who, for religious reasons, feel it’s very important to meet homeless people outside and provide them with food. The old ordinance, before we challenged it, was preventing them from doing that.”

The previous mandates stated that in order to feed anyone for free, organizations or individuals had to report to the city first. In addition, running water and bathroom services were required in any food distribution. These original ordinances kept some organizations from efficiently distributing food to the homeless population.

“There’s no city that’s passed these kinds of mean-spirited laws that then saw their homelessness problem go away,” executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless Jerry Jones said for Vox News in December. “None of those things solve a person’s homeless situation. They’re intended to make it unpleasant or uncomfortable to make a person stay in a jurisdiction.”

The amendments are partly a result of a lawsuit filed by two religious ministries that argued that the city of Dallas, in their homeless feeding policy, restricted their religious freedom. In 2013, a judge ruled the ordinances unconstitutional, leading to the amendments.

“Dallas is a great example,” Rosen said to ThinkProgress in December. “We didn’t demand in settling the case that there be no ordinance to cover food sharing with homeless people. We said the ordinance that had been enacted was unreasonable in specific ways and needed to be changed, and that’s what the city’s agreed to do.”

Other cities, like Fort Lauderdale, Florida, have also passed ordinances that make it difficult to feed homeless people. Rosen and other advocates for those in poverty both in Florida and in Texas hope that the new Dallas sanitation measures included in the amendments will no longer be as restrictive.

“If you’re asking about changes to this ordinance, specifically, they speak to food safety,” assistant city manager Joey Zapata said to Dallas News in December. “But it’s not just about food safety, this is about property, being on public or private, et cetera, so we have to huddle up and bring more options back to public safety.”

However, local organizations, like the school’s FCA, often provide food for families in need without much involvement in restrictions. For biology teacher and FCA sponsor Shawn Purcell, who led a food drive over Thanksgiving break, the original policy would not have kept him from helping those in need.

“It was at an apartment complex in Mckinney, and a lady that works at the apartment complex works with these families [in need],” Purcell said. “Also, the Pfaffs and their church had kind of been working with and been in a relationship with the apartment complex, so there was no policy or anything. Ms. Pfaff helped to organize, and working through them, it was pretty simple.”

Individuals and organizations in favor of a more lenient policy towards feeding homeless people hope that the city will continue to work in the interest of those in need.

“We think this is a fair settlement that allows the city to feel confident that the health and safety rules are being followed,” Rosen said for ThinkProgress in December. “[It] doesn’t prevent our clients from doing what they want to do and what they feel their religion compels them to do, which is to go out and take care of homeless people who don’t have any other obvious source of food.”