THE BLOG
11/14/2014 01:23 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

"Please Don't Feed the Homeless"

Ariel Skelley via Getty Images

I have written in these pages before about controversy around ordinances banning food distribution to homeless people in public spaces. The issue has re-emerged in Florida, where, according to the New York Times, it has become an increasing phenomenon, and where social justice actors such as 90 year-old Arnold Abbot of Fr. Lauderdale are actively engaging in civil disobedience.

Good for Mr. Abbot. It's important that these laws, however well intended, don't stand.

Here's the run-down. As the Times notes, and for obvious reason, warm states often attract more people who don't have housing. People without housing frequent public spaces because they don't have private spaces of their own to frequent. When a private citizen, church, nonprofit or citizens group offers public distribution of precious resources such as food, financial support or temporary shelter to people experiencing homelessness, those people congregate.

When large numbers of people congregate in places that aren't built to support the needs of such large numbers over extended periods of time, public disorder can ensue. Such disorder might include loitering, public urination due to lack of sufficient toilet facilities, loudness, trash and debris, etc. Local business owners and other actors, understandably, don't like that public disorder and want it to go away. Hence, the bans.

The arguments I made on the first go around with this subject still stand. When the interests of two groups of citizens compete, one should err on the side of the disenfranchised. They have fewer alternatives, the state likely already is failing them, and, as the old saying goes, the measure of a society is in how it treats its most vulnerable.

Those arguments seemed sufficient when one city in North Carolina had enacted a ban. That this is a trend across Florida and other southern states now, however, means it is time for a second look. There are more arguments to be made.

First, the issues that arise from food distribution in public spaces are not unique to the homeless population. Loitering, public urination, trash...all are issues that would arise if any group of people had a chance to get something they really wanted for free in a public space. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if Apple offered free iPhones in your public square. These ordinances and the debates around them act as if the behaviors in question are the result of the people in question being homeless, instead of being people.

Second, the dialog around these laws is about "please, don't feed the homeless in public." Is it just me, or does that smack of the "don't feed the polar bear" sign at the zoo? There's a dehumanizing quality to both the ordinances themselves, and the discussions around such ordinances, that is common to the way we handle the "other" when the "other" makes us uncomfortable. Public spaces are for everyone. Restrictions on their use should also apply to everyone, not to one population that somehow seems more discomfiting or less human.

Third, supporters of the bans assert, again understandably, that this is a question of public spaces, not food distribution to people who are homeless. In other words, just feed them inside instead.

Therein lies a rub. "Take the issue inside," means "take the issue out of sight." Out of sight really is out of mind. The public awareness, and sometimes discomfort, that offering food to the homeless in public spaces creates is an important tool for public pressure. People without address or means are easily disenfranchised. It is counter to the democratic spirit to ban them from availing themselves of one of the few tools for public pressure and awareness that they actually possess.

Reasonable people can stand on both sides of this issue. When a conflict emerges between reasonable people, though, we should err on the side of the marginalized, and on the side of the spirit of public participation. It is core to who we are.

Good for Arnold Abbott.