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Code of Ordinances, City of Houston, Texas, Chapter 20-Charitable Food Services

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Introduction

The city of Houston, like many other cities in America, is concerned with offering services to those, who are less privileged in the society. One of these services is the charitable food service. Those, concerned with this service, provide food to homeless people and others, who are unable to provide meals for themselves free of charge. This is done outdoors and the locations are not usually leased out to the persons involved with the charity service. Other words used include food service events, which are defined as providing food to more than five persons by the charity service.

In 2012, the city council of Houston drafted and passed a law that saw the creation of the recognized Charitable Food Service Program in line with Section 20-253, which is a volunteer program that coordinates with other programs, such as the Houston Department of Health and the Homeless Coalition for Harris and Houston County. The main aim of this program is to offer service to the homeless persons in Houston. The ordinance is provided for the three main objectives:

  • To focus on betterment of the quality, quantity, and the distribution channels of the food provided in the outdoor setting;
  • Offer a larger platform, which the homeless will have more access to, through the service providers;
  • To provide measures that will minimize conflict of the food service providers with private and public property owners.

While many felt that the program was meant to phase out the food service to the homeless, the city defended this ordinance as the one, which will improve the services by these volunteer organizations/individuals through an effective training of the distribution, quality, and quantity of the food to the homeless. The result of the numerous discussions with the health department and homeless service providers was the formation of the program. The program is made of the four phases:

  • An organization that deals with food service, whether it is formal or non-formal, should register with the city council. This involves giving location of the organization, type of food proposed to be served, the schedules, and contact information;
  • One or more persons involved in the handling of free food in the organization should undergo a training program free of charge provided by the Houston health department. The training will give the volunteers guidelines on the ways to handle food for the homeless and educate them on other services that the homeless will benefit from;
  • It allows for coordination of the various food service charities to ensure maximization, so that the homeless have access to the service throughout the weeks;
  • To provide consents for the organizations and individuals before they use private or public property for service above 5 people;

The city of Houston in its defense of the program recognized the efforts made by various volunteer organizations and individuals towards helping homeless in the city, as this is a vital service to them. The city was concerned with the process of handling of the food; hence, the provision for training of persons and registration of their organizations in order to maximize on these services by having a well-coordinated system, which will go the long way in providing not only food service, but other services that the homeless persons needed for sustenance as well. The city was also concerned with the use of public and private property by the organizations in their distribution of food to the homeless. Some of the organizations did not go through the proper channels when obtaining permits to set up their food service areas. The program by the city of Houston determines the most suitable location, for example, the park, and in line with organizations from the trained staff and the director of recreation and parks, then the food service area is set up.

The ordinance provided for any organization to register and provide the necessary information, as per the regulations with the department of health in the city of Houston, before they conduct any food service activity. Depending on the information given to the inspector of the health department, they will either be approved or denied the permits to conduct this activity. Sections 20-36 and 20-37 provide for those, who have a valid and up to date permanent or temporary food dealer permit; they will not be required to fill the registration forms. The registration is valid for the time that the organization is involved in the feeding activity and is compliant with the provisions in the article V charitable food service. The registration is subject to revocation by the city health department, when the organization flaunts the provisions and uses it in a manner deemed improper.

Section 20-252 provides that it will be unlawful for the organizations/individuals to conduct or promote a feeding activity in a public or private area without proper authorization either from the city or from the property owner. Such acts will attract heavy fines from the city council. It is a requirement for those, willing to conduct food service activity, to get proper accreditation from the health department and from the property owners in order to avoid any conflicts that may arise later on.

Section 20-257 gives provisions for the use of parks and other city owned grounds for conducting the food service activities. With consultation from the director of parks and recreation in the city of Houston, who will develop regulation that will aid in finding suitable location to conduct the food services for the homeless, the activity becomes legal. The department will provide the locations that have been approved to conduct the activities. This is to avoid overuse of resources and to maximize reachability of the homeless in various locations.

While the city is confident in the success of the program, amendments to the Ordinance were met with great resistance from the volunteers in these food service organizations, who saw it as an attempt by the City to do away with he homeless feeding programs. Having regulation that placed restrictions on sharing food with the poor and the homeless was not only immoral, but it was bound to have a large section of the beneficiaries left hungry. One of the groups against this move by the City of Houston is the Houston Food Not Bombs, a vegetarian volunteer organization that is against war. The organization has been offering food to the homeless and other destitute people in various areas across Houston for more than 18 years, and in the recent months have made the news, as they speak out against regulations to have written permission from the department of  health and human services.

This is not an ethical move, especially since the City Council is accused of enforcing this law without proper consultation from the volunteer groups or their representatives. Many of the volunteer groups source for quality food from their homes and from the sponsors, and cook it wherever it is convenient. These organizations are usually first on the scene in case of emergencies, such as hurricanes and floods, while the government is putting in place feeding mechanisms, due to the fact that they have no red tape to cut through, their work is made relatively easier compared to the government run programs, which have to go through numerous verifications and regulations, which at times may prove frustrating; thus, those, in dire need, may not access the help with the emergency it requires.

These are some of the reasons for the revolt on the amendments done to the Code of Ordinances, City of Houston, Texas, Chapter 20-Food and Drugs, and Article V Charitable Food Services. According to Nick Cooper, a volunteer with Houston Food Not Bombs program, those, who passed the law, are ‘heavy hitters’, who have vested interests and completely ignored complaints and warnings from the focus groups and volunteers from the various groups, who had turned up to oppose the passing of the law. The passing of the law has made sharing of food with more than 5 people illegal, and one has to get permits to share food with homeless or other needy persons in Houston.

While the Council was right in checking for the quality, quantity, and distribution networks of the food service, placing regulation that required written permits for these organizations would only cause chaos and misplaced loathing between the Council Workers and the volunteers. While chapter 20 of the code of ordinances has some valid amendments, the volunteer organizations are against the move by the City Council to ban the sharing of food, especially on public property. The first draft required there to be mandatory registration in the entire city and this was later altered to only include the voluntary food service activity, having them registering for permits for them to operate. A fine of $500 is issued to those, who are found to be operating without proper permits. Some of the council members, who are opposed to this section, which criminalizes those, who do not seek proper permits and registration, do not see this as the way to go about it.

A thin line separates law and morality; it is expected that legal judgment will be made in an approximation to the moral/ethical standards of the present day (Miller, 155). In case of criminal law it seeks to protect individuals from those, who mean them harm and violate their rights. Common activities deemed as criminal include theft, fraud, murder, and so forth. All these are morally wrong and interpreted as being illegal by the society; therefore, due punishment is netted to them. Society depicts which is illegal as immoral, and which is ethical as acceptable. However, this school of thought has faced opposition on the various fronts, when the question of morality versus justice arises (Ten 366).

The law governs our everyday life. It is responsible for our interactions, both personal and social. Breaking of a law brings with its consequences and this we are aware of. Most people have a working knowledge of the law; the black and white of it is easy to understand, while the grey areas will need the guidance and interpretation from the legal experts. With the advancements in civilization, the law comes into conflict with the moral norms present at the time; the situation, which follows, is that the law will be interpreted under these provisions until a time, when these changes will be affected to comply with the evolved norms. There is no particular point, in which morality and the law will stand on the similar ground; conflicts will constantly arise with the evolving state of affairs.

The law will not be at par with the society’s moral compass, and for this reason the law is not bound to interpretation using the moral guidance provided by the society. However, this separation of morality and law is not in totality; it is a subject to interpretation in the situations, where those, in charge of administering the law, find themselves in a dilemma between making judgment under the full extent of the law, while being seemingly apathetic to the rights and wrongs of the same laws.

The interpretation of the law by legislators and judges is meant to exercise and pass justice accordingly. The term justice evokes thoughts and concepts of truth and fairness; it is not quite as easy as it seems (Rawls 3). When the city of Houston deems it criminal to share food in public with the homeless and destitute, and goes on to arrest volunteers, who are doing a service to these poor individuals, the conflict arises. One may wonder whether it is criminal to help out those, who are in need of food and of other services in the community. Moreover, one will be questioning what justice is being denied in this case. Is it wrong for the City to put down measures that protect the handling of food in public by volunteers by having them trained and validated; or is it wrong for the volunteers to flaunt these measures knowing fully the consequences of such actions?

Justice is defined by more than what is right or wrong. The government is seen as an agent of justice. They answer to the citizens of a country, since they are the same citizens, who have electted them to their posts. Some of the governments have passed the laws based on their vested interests, and have turned for their ways of justice and instead practiced tyrannical rule (Rawls 266). It can also be an action carried out by a group or by an individual meant to protect the rights of others. When such an action meant for the protection of the majority is performed, then it is described as being just. The reverse is also true; when an action that protects the rights of only a few is taken, then it is an unjust deed. Justice can also be a state of affairs in a given system, society, or institution. Humanity regards such institutions as the legal system and the church to be just in the qualities they showcase. A society that is unjust is the one, which is a burden to its citizens; it is the one, which allows for persecution and discrimination of a person within it. Such a society does not allow for matters of equality. The legal system is the backbone of any society and in the situation, where it does not present fairness in its execution of justice, the society will crumble and fall into the hands of dictatorial rule (Rawls 3).

Sharing food with those who are hungry is considered to be the act of moral decency. When the laws that place barriers on these acts of kindness are enforced, then it is a bound cause of a revolt in the society. There cannot be the law that dictates how and when one should share the food they have with those who are less fortunate. You cannot give, when it is convenient for a certain person, you give because you want to and because at the particular time someone is in need and you have the capacity to help them. One of the volunteers, who boycotted the amendment, said that one cannot plan when they are going to have some extra supplies with them and will feel the need to share it with another, who may not have any with them. Sometimes, the supplies may be perishable and cannot last long, it will mean that a lot of food will go to waste due to the consequences that sharing of food will bring. The poor state of the economy put many families at risk with food prices soaring making it hard for them to purchase and have quality meals. One in two persons in American lives in poverty. It is through the efforts of organizations, such as the Houston Food Not Bombs, which help to keep the homeless and other hungry people in the city fed with quality healthy vegetarian food for many years.

The moral compass versus the regulation provided by the law has volunteers waging war on the City council and the police, who are mandated to arrest those, found to be sharing their food in public to more than five persons. Many of these volunteers do not have the amount of money that will be required to rent and renovate spaces that will house their food service activities. They are taking the food to these destitute persons and when they are confined to a particular location it will be hard for a section of the population to have access to the services.

Not only is the ordinance unnecessary, but it comes at a time, where the federal government is threatening with cutbacks of programs, such as the food stamps, which millions of Americans rely on for pushing their spending a little further. When a ban is placed on the volunteer groups, who are turning away almost 20% of persons in need of their help and with no income coming into their pockets, the state of the City’s destitute is one of the greatest concern. The volunteers affected are faith and community based groups, soul kitchens, who rely on the donations from family and friends; many of them have jobs but dedicate their time to helping those, who are unable to support themselves for one reason or another.

It has been pointed out that the organizations, which are able to pay these requirements and have the means to do so, are not interested in feeding the poor and destitute in the city.

The law governs all persons, whether great or small. When interpreting the law, judges do so in a manner provided in the constitution and not based on their own merit. However, when the question of morality is raised, it becomes difficult to pass the judgment.  It is clear that the ordinance was meant to regulate the food service programs by introducing quality control and educating the volunteers on the ways to improve and add to the services that they provided. While this is necessary, it was the law that criminalized sharing of food in public that brought on the rebellion from the volunteers and other stakeholders. They could not understand how the city would take a moral thing/action that the sharing of food with the homeless in public attracts a fine. However, they could see those found to be flaunting the regulation denied permits to continue with their service to the homeless and could even spend time in jail (Miller 155).

Conclusion

Does the law have an ability to dictate what one can and cannot do? Can the law dictate when one should offer their charity? Is it right for a law to criminalize a person for their charity? Natural legislators are of the school of thought that individuals should disobey rules and regulation that are partial; on the other hand, positivists are of the opinion that an unlawful law should still be followed. Various reasons are given as to why the laws should or should not be followed. Humans will protect themselves from the situations that will cause them harm and from those that will inhibit their rights and freedoms. While sharing of food in public with the less fortunate is an act of morality, it will have adverse effects on the individual; hence, it will be easier to go through the proper channels and getting permits to work without fear of discrimination.

For there to be justice, the law has to be adhered to. The law is basically a blueprint of what is expected of an individual, and while this will conflict with the moral and norms of the society, the law will not be followed (Marx 569). The challenges facing the volunteers and the City Council on the way forward as a result of the Ordinance are far from being resolved. 

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