In Bullhead City, Arizona, feeding those living on the streets without a permit is punishable by a jail term
An Arizona woman sued her city on Tuesday over a law that punishes feeding the homeless in public parks with a four-month prison sentence. The 78-year-old was arrested under the law for distributing food from a van.
Norma Thornton was brought to court in April, a month after she was ticketed for feeding homeless people in Bullhead Community Park without a permit. She was the first person punished under an ordinance passed by the city’s council a year earlier with the goal of deterring the homeless from congregating in parks.
While charges against Thornton were dropped, she filed a lawsuit on Tuesday and is seeking an injunction to stop the city enforcing the ordinance.
“Bullhead City has criminalized kindness,” Thornton’s attorney told Phoenix TV station KPHO. “The City Council passed an ordinance that makes it a crime punishable by four months imprisonment to share food in public parks for charitable purposes.”
However, city officials pointed out that the ordinance only applies to public parks. Churches, clubs, and private properties may continue to serve food to those living on the streets without permits.
Moreover, the city insisted that the law was necessary after park users complained for years about being solicited for food and money by the homeless. City workers had been “repeatedly called to address public nuisance and other illegal behavior, clean up human waste, litter, trash and other debris left over from the food sharing events,” the city wrote in the ordinance.
There were more than 580,000 homeless people on US streets in 2020, according to the most recent figures from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. While this number is lower than the peak of 647,000 recorded in 2007, the number of those lacking any kind of shelter has increased every year since 2015, and now stands at 226,000.
According to a 2019 report by the National Homelessness Law Center, 16 out of 187 cities surveyed have laws like Bullhead City’s restricting food sharing. Proponents of these laws argue that homeless people congregating for free food spread disease and increase crime rates.