Norma Thornton, a 78-year-old grandmother, was in her local park doing what she normally did every week for four years: using her restaurant and food service experience to feed neighbors in need. Norma knew that people were spending the nights near the public park on federal land, but they were miles away from the nearest shelter or food pantry. Along with a friend of hers, Norma sought to meet the community need and brought food to Bullhead City Community Park, sharing with anyone who asked.
This all changed on March 8, 2022. Norma was arrested and criminally charged for violating a city ordinance—despite the arresting officer’s warning to his higher-ups that an arrest would be a “PR nightmare.” Bullhead City, Arizona, recently passed an ordinance that made it illegal to share prepared food in a public park “for charitable purposes.” After a reporter published Norma’s story on the front page of the local newspaper, the city decided to drop the criminal charges and allow her to share food in a private alley—out of sight but without shade, picnic tables, or bathrooms for people to wash their hands.
Bullhead City is not alone in arresting people like Norma Thornton. Atlanta, Georgia, El Cajon, California, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, have similar stories of putting a stop to groups and individuals charitably feeding the homeless in public. A 2019 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that about 9% of cities prohibited or restricted sharing free food in public places, an increase of 42% from their 2016 survey.
When Norma Thornton was arrested, she calmly said to the officer, “I’m not out to hurt anybody.” City council members and others argue that people like Norma Thornton are enabling homelessness and putting people at risk of illness due to lack of enforcement of food preparation standards.
Homelessness is a complex societal problem, but stamping out charitable food sharing is not the solution. When charity is criminalized, the decay of civil society accelerates. The purpose of charity is supporting human dignity and sharing in the suffering of others, which contrasts with the purpose of effective altruism (see The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity, by Jeremy Beer).
The only thing Norma says she’s enabling is people’s survival. If health concerns are the problem, narrower health-related ordinances could be applied to prevent illness. Norma’s act of charity may have some negative repercussions, but the problem of homelessness requires greater collaboration and more solutions, not removing charitable persons from the playing field.
Another argument against Norma’s charitable work is that feeding people experiencing homeless increases homelessness in that area. Cities have gone to great lengths to send people experiencing homelessness off to new states and cities through busing programs. Sometimes, if a homeless person is sent to live with a close friend or family member, relocation can be for the best. Results, however, are mixed with this solution.
Not only is criminalizing sharing food in public places not a good solution to homelessness, but the Institute for Justice (IJ) believes the ordinance is also unconstitutional. That’s why on October 25, 2022, Norma joined IJ in a federal lawsuit against Bullhead City.
IJ argues in their complaint that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution gives special protection to rights and liberties, among them the ability to engage in charitable acts and help people in need. America has a rich history of hundreds of years of personal charity, despite the increasing role the state plays in society.
IJ is currently awaiting Bullhead City’s response to their initial information requests (requests for documents, etc.) and hopes to have a decision from the trial court for Norma by the end of the 2023.
Norma’s hope is that the courts will rule that she can continue serving food for those in need wherever they are in her community. Rather than causing illness and enabling homelessness, Norma’s generosity brings those experiencing homelessness a basic resource they need to survive when other policies fail.