Making charity a crime

As Think Progress reported on April 29, a bill to outlaw “solicitation” — which includes panhandling — unanimously passed in the Louisiana state House earlier in April. It will go to the state Senate next week, and if it passes the homeless or destitute could earn themselves up to six months in prison if they ask for help.

This bizarre law is guaranteed to do one thing — keep Louisiana jails full. It’s insane that legislators in the state with the largest prison population are wasting their time criminalizing voluntary acts.

But Louisiana is not alone in this campaign to outlaw being at the bottom of the societal barrel. Other locales, including Sacramento, California and Columbia, South Carolina have recently enacted similar laws that either ban homeless people from business districts or mandate a fee for groups who wish to feed them.

Think Progress, the Huffington Post, Salon, and Alternet have reported often on this horrible legislative backlash against the most downtrodden, and their writers deserve props for covering an important, unsexy issue like the right of homeless people to beg.

Yet none of these authors seem to take these stories them to their logical conclusion — namely, if people are so selfish that “charity” (with plenty of bureaucratic muck in the middle) must be mandatory, why the hell do governments get in the way of people’s individual acts of charity so often? And isn’t that telling?

It’s not just laws that would conveniently bar panhandlers from Louisiana. All over the United States are horrible stories of cities and sometimes states banning folks helping each other using diverse avenues of restrictions. In 2007, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition of the Homeless reported on food sharing restrictions in 20 different cities from Baltimore to Denver to Las Vegas.

And there’s more. Here are just a few examples of charity being halted. During winter of 2012, Deacon Tim Reilly was ordered by the mayor of Green Bay, Wisconsin to stop keeping so many homeless people in his shelter because he had reached the maximum occupancy for that building. Reilly, being a good Catholic who was trying to prevent people from freezing to death, ignored that command.

A troublingly similar case happened this winter in Rockford, Illinois. Several Florida cities saw arrests or warnings of dissident charitable folk trying to feed the homeless in parks. Palo Alto recently outlawed sleeping in cars, to make sure the homeless wouldn’t have that option, when the city already banned sitting and lying on sidewalks back in 1997. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg began restricting donations to homeless shelters during his reign over New York City over concerns that the food wasn’t healthy enough.

In 2012, a woman was prevented from feeding kids in her Philadelphia neighborhood because she was in a residential area, and the zoning wouldn’t permit her good acts. Earlier this month, a pastor in Oneonta, Alabama was hassled about feeding the homeless without paying a fee that deals with food truck regulation. And last year a group of hunters’ generous donation of 1,600 pounds of deer meat to a Shreveport-Bossier homeless shelter was thrown out because the state Health Department freaked out about safety.

Now, a local new outlet, KRQE, reported on April 19 that the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico settled a lawsuit brought by individuals arrested for feeding homeless people downtown for $100,000. So, it’s not all bad news. After all, each of the aforementioned stories became media outrage fodder because of their obvious absurdity.

And as Baylen Linnekin noted over at Reason on April 19, stories on these mean-spirited bans on charity have written up by Democrat Examiner writers and conservative writers at the Blaze. It’s bipartisan nausea! If all else fails, embarrassing city officials will sometimes do the trick in terms of changing policy.

But reporting with outrage is one thing, correctly identifying the problem is another. On April 25, a Salon writer found the news of a Fort Lauderdale (what the hell, Florida?) law that would let police take possessions from the homeless understandably distressing.

Elizabeth Stoker decided that this and other small and mean laws were a sign of the cruelty of…capitalism. Not an argument that cities pass lunatic legislation, or that the police have too much power; not an impassioned defense of the homeless’ right to keep their meager possessions. No, Stoker blames capitalism’s black heart for this kind of legislation.

She is so close to having a good point when she notes that the homeless are easy to kick around because they have no lobbying power, but, say, posh little business districts who want the unsightly poors out of eyesight do. Yes, as any good libertarian or conservative would know, business owners are sadly not always the biggest fans of freedom, and yes, any voter screaming at city hall has more clout than the local mentally ill person screaming on the corner.

But Stoker makes the same mistake that just about every liberal does in talking about crony capitalism. She mysteriously blames money, and not power. The businesses which would have no power without the hand of government are somehow the only villains worth discussing. Indeed, Stoker concludes by saying that Christian ethics and capitalism are inherently at odds, something proved by all of these laws against begging.

Laws against helping others appear disguised as occupancy limits for buildings, permits for gatherings, health and safety regulations. Sometimes folks do lobby in an unsubtle fashion to just get those unsightly poor people out of their way and into jail if that’s what it takes. The people gunning for those harmful laws are either selfish creeps or hand-wringing safety nerds more concerned with salt content than whether someone homeless gets to eat tonight.

Regardless, the power to stop people from being the kind, generous individuals so many of them want to be is only possible with the cruel, bureaucratic mechanisms of the state.


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