Woman Cites Religious Freedom Law to Defend Her Right to Feed the Homeless*
By Bryce Covert
Joan Cheever being ticketed by San Antonio police
Joan Cheever of San Antonio has been serving meals to the city’s homeless for 10 years. But last week, police officers handed her a ticket with a potential fine of $2,000. Despite having a food permit for the food truck she cooks out of, which she calls the Chow Train, she was cited for transporting and serving it from a different vehicle.
But that hasn’t stopped her from continuing to hand out three-course meals to the homeless. On Friday, she went back to Maverick Park with 50 supporters to hand out food, and this time she wasn’t ticketed. Cheever has argued that she has a right to feed the homeless under Texas’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act because she considers it exercising her religious beliefs.
Her situation has caught the attention of the city council. Councilman Ron Nirenberg called for a hearing on how city police deal with its homeless population, which numbers nearly 3,000, saying,
“We need to do what we can to identify smart policy that helps us encourage compassion, rather than discourage it.”
Their tactics have come under scrutiny before after an investigation found that in under two years, they had handed out more than 12,000 citations to the homeless themselves for violating ordinances aimed at criminalizing homelessness. Offenses range from “aggressive panhandling” to sitting or lying down in a public right of way.
But plenty of other cities have used similar tactics against the homeless and those who seek to help them. Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old veteran, has been arrested and cited for feeding the homeless in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida after the city passed an ordinance to crack down on people who hand food to the homeless. In Daytona Beach, Florida, a couple was given a more than $600 fine. A pastor in Birmingham, Alabama was blocked from feeding the homeless because he didn’t have a $500 permit needed to comply with a new regulation for food trucks.
Meanwhile, ordinances aimed at criminalizing homelessness such as bans on panhandling, lying down, having possessions in public, and sharing food have been on the rise at the city and state level.
Other places take a different approach. Some are considering enacting a Homeless Bill of Rights that would enshrine their right to move about freely, rest in public, and accept and eat food. Three states already have such laws. Others have housed entire portions of their homeless populations by taking a housing first approach that puts the homeless into housing and then addresses any other issues they may have. That ends up being much more cost effective than leaving them outside where they are at risk of police encounters and emergency room visits.