Volunteers in a Southern California city near San Diego face misdemeanor charges for handing out food to the homeless.
Police in El Cajon arrested around 12 people from the “Break The Ban” group who were distributing food and other items to the city’s homeless population at Wells Park on Sunday afternoon, according to multiple press reports.
Officers alleged that the group’s members were violating a ban on sharing food in city-owned public spaces, which the El Cajon City Council introduced in October 2017 to stop an outbreak of Hepatitis A.
Police did not take the individuals they cited to jail, but those arrested have been scheduled to appear in court, according to local NBC 7 news.
The group has vowed to legally challenge the citations and the food-sharing ban.
“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,” one of the volunteers, Shane Parmely, told The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Fellow organizer Mark Lane told a press conference (video below) on Monday that the ban was “based on an excuse.”
“Yes, we have a problem with Hepatitis A but you don’t battle that by not feeding homeless people,” said Lane. “You battle that by giving them proper restroom facilities, proper hand washing facilities, and vaccinations, education.”
Matthew Schneck, who attended the event, said that if he was “going to be arrested for something, let it be for feeding the homeless.”
“I’m not going to apologize for doing the right thing,” he defiantly added. Schneck also shared a photograph of his citation to Twitter:
The city council and police have yet to comment on the arrests.
The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties condemned the incident, which was held on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Dr. Martin Luther King was deeply concerned about ending poverty and hunger in America,” its executive director, Norma Chavez Peterson, said in an online statement. “I have no doubt that if he were alive today, Dr. King would stand with people who would share food with the hungry; and he would stand against those who would call this a crime.”
The San Diego County public health officer declared in September 2017 that the Hepatitis A outbreak in the area was a local public health emergency, writing that “the majority of people who have contracted Hepatitis A during this outbreak have been homeless and/or illicit drug users.”
As of Jan. 3, there have been 577 reported cases of the highly-infectious liver condition that can be transmitted sexually by handling contaminated objects or eating infected food. Some 20 deaths have also been linked to the current outbreak.