It is now illegal to give food to scruffy looking types in two US cities: Las Vegas and Orlando.
Two new ordinances in these cities, passed on the 20th of July in Las Vegas and the 26th of July in Orlando, mean that people on government support cannot eat in a public place for free or a negligible fee. The punishment? Well the recipient stays hungry and homeless (unless he or she can be squeezed into the local jailhouse) and the feeder could get $1000 fine and six months in prison. Now that’s an expensive sandwich by anyone’s standards (although some City delis come pretty close).
But how will this be enforced? How on earth can Marshals know who is on government support when they come across a suspect sandwich transaction? Well luckily the Mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, has the answer: “Certain truths are self-evident. You know who’s homeless.”
Now he mentions it, I guess they do look a bit different to us don’t they? Skinny, drawn, probably with a beer can in hand and eyes bulging as a result of some kind of substance misuse. Clothes a bit ripped and messed up; hair unkempt and certainly unshaven. And then there’s the smell of course: a vile cocktail of human excrement and alcohol.
Quite apart from the difficulties of policing this new law, just imagine the bourgeois nightmare: you’re just sitting down with Timmy, Gemima and Clarence the dog for your delightful picnic in the park after a splendid morning feeding the ducks (legal). As you unpack the smashing sandwiches that cook prepared from the rems of last night’s charming soiree a down-at-heel type approaches you (note: he has not shaved recently – beware!). You signal calmly to the children who have retreated to cower behind you; brave Clarence sniffs disdainfully. The man (who, you quickly realise, is not wearing the latest style at ALL) removes his beaten cap and asks if he could possibly have a sandwich. What on earth do you DO? Give him a sandwich and risk criminal proceedings (heaven alone knows: he could be an undercover Park Attendant!), or refuse the sandwich and almost certainly risk losing the kids in a brutal daylight kidnapping?
The implications are wide-reaching: there was a famous summer during my schooldays in Reading when both Doritos and Tango were promoting new products simultaneously. They would generously hand out packets of crisps and bottles of drink to all comers in Reading station. It was beautiful: the perfect way to end the day, relaxed, feet up, on the train home with 14 packs of Doritos and a six bottles of Tango Still (it took a lot of nerve and a large bag to pull off, but it was certainly possible). But now, in the light of this legislation, presumably the promotion would only be open to those who could produce a gas bill or some other proof of address. This provokes the troubling thought: would they have accepted one in my Dad’s name?
Allen Lichtenstein, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney puts it another way: “So the only people who get to eat are those who have enough money? Those who get (government) assistance can’t eat at your picnic?” Surely this is madness!
Luckily, Las Vegas councilman Steve Wolfson raised this exact point with the city attorney Brad Jerbic. Wolfson was understandably worried that a hypothetical kind-hearted individual would be prevented from giving some homeless guy a hypothetical bite to eat. Jerbic clarified the matter for him: “If you bought a couple of burgers and wanted to give them out, you technically would be in violation, but you wouldn’t be cited.” Great! The Las Vegas ordinance was passed unanimously.
I guess they’re just after the big boys then; the people who go out and just hand out burgers to ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand, no, maybe five thousand hungry people!
This certainly appears to be the case with Orlando’s apparently less extreme ordinance. The City Council voted to prohibit serving meals to groups of 25 or more people in parks and other public property within two miles of City Hall without a special permit. The reason given (according to WFTV) was that “transients gathering for weekly meals create safety and sanitary problems for businesses”. Well, of course, the smelly buggers, coming here with their wee and poo and beards – yuk! Banish them! Two miles should do it… No wonder that negotiations between the city council and the American Civil Liberties Union ended badly due to a suspicion of bad faith.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is some kind of crazy US social fuckup; remember that what happens over there will happen over here sooner or later. Sorry, that is a terrible generalisation and a frankly exhausted tabloid cliché: ignore me – but just ponder the following:
A couple of weeks ago Westminster City Council criticised soup kitchens: “We appreciate they are trying to help but all they are doing is helping to sustain people on the streets.” The BBC reported that “a spokesman for Westminster City Council said soup runs fail to reduce the number of homeless people and can disturb residents in surrounding areas.” This seems to echo the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude expressed by the city councils of Las Vegas and Orlando.
With withering simplicity, Mr Samson, director of Shelter, pointed out “It is not lack of soup that causes homelessness”. Wise words.
The French, meanwhile, have been busy closing down soup kitchens for other reasons.
Soup kitchens run by right wing groups, serving soup somewhat provocatively made with smoked bacon, pigs’ ears, pigs’ feet, pigs’ tails and sausages, were targeted by French authorities last February. This was in response to the growing alienation felt by Muslim groups in France and during a period when the whole of Europe seemed to be in the grip of cartoon-related civil unrest.
The kindly matron of one such soup kitchen in Paris made the point, however, that “Other communities don’t hesitate to help their own, so why can’t we?” – shortly before climbing on top of a car and screaming, “We are all pig eaters! We are all pig eaters!”
And it is true that Islamic and Jewish charities dole out (shock!) halal and kosher food respectively. But it wouldn’t be too hard to argue that these special diet kitchens don’t actually exclude certain social groups. It’s hard to say the same about a soup kitchen who baldly state: “The only condition required for dining with us: eat pork.”
It is easy for me; I could happily live a life in which food was not an issue of great social and political importance, but every now and again something nudges me awake.