Houston’s homeless will suffer under proposed regulations

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Economics / Houston / Political Commentary

Too often we pay critical attention to national policy debates and miss the ones going on under our noses. Many Houstonians are unaware that on March 20, the City Council considered and thankfully postponed new regulations on feeding the homeless which would have made it much more difficult for local charities and generous individuals to meet the needs of the city’s poor. Community members pushed back and a revised version of the ordinance will be considered today, April 3—more on that in a moment.

It began the same way as most other regulations: government declares an obligation to protect and provide for citizens at all cost and proposes new legislation to better manage an otherwise “uncoordinated” and “unjust” private sector. After the storm clears we are with a little less freedom, government has a little more power, and those who need help get a lot less of it.

The initial regulation required any person or organization that wants to feed “those in need” at an off-property location to register with the City and get approval from a health officer. Furthermore, in order to retain a permit they would have to comply with a new plethora of regulations, the breaking of which could cost $50 to $2,000 per day. Here is a sampling of the regulations for anyone engaging in “charitable feeding activities”:

–       Get the location approved by a health officer on the basis of stringent personnel, equipment, facility and procedural standards, as well as whether or not the location “is consistent with the need to provide such service in and meets the needs of the adjacent community”

-       Involve at least one person who is certified through a city-sponsored food training class, and one person who has a valid food service manager’s certification

-       Avoid preparing or storing food in a private residence

-       Throw away all food that has not been temperature controlled for four or more hours

-       Provide a hand-washing facility with free flowing water and soap (if serving non-packaged food)

–       Collect all wastewater from washing hands and equipment into an approved container until properly disposed of in a manner that is consistent with federal, state and local regulations
–       Keep the feeding area clean and litter-free

Some may read this list and think some of it is pretty reasonable. After all, it is mostly about basic safety standards, and what is the government for if not to protect innocent citizens? But we have to evaluate our options and think through the unintended consequences of these requirements.

Under these rules, it would take much more time, resources and money to give away food. People would have to plan longer in advance, find suitable locations, get them approved, make sure they have all the right equipment, find certified food servers and jump through numerous hoops to make sure the “I”s are dotted and the “T”s are crossed. Such inflexible top-down restrictions would make it difficult for all but the largest and most organized charities to feed the poor. Mayor Parker is worried about sanitation, but are the homeless more concerned about getting ill than going hungry? The bigger question: should they be allowed to evaluate risks and make that decision themselves?

“Are the homeless more concerned about getting ill than going hungry? The bigger question: should they be allowed to evaluate risks and make that decision themselves?”

She is also worried about waste, though these standards would result in far more good food being tossed into the trash. Those party leftovers that no one wants to take home… don’t even think about doing something as unlawful as giving them to a homeless person. This was one of the more egregious aspects of the ordinance, which has now been addressed. The revised ordinance states that those who are feeding 5 or fewer people are excluded, and the regulations are now essentially voluntary.

However, the law may still be detrimental to feeding the needy in Houston. One piece of the legislation that is still fully intact is the requirement than any person or organization engaging in charitable feeding beyond their own property must acquire written permission to do so. At first glance, this seems sensible—people shouldn’t be setting up operations on someone else’s property without approval. But to extract the potential problems, we should look at how this plays out with the two general classifications of property: public and private.

People are able to do anything they want on their own property, provided it does not conflict with other ordinances, but we do not have rights to the private property of others. I have no problem with protecting the rights of residential and commercial property owners. Yet, I am not certain that acquiring written permission is necessary—we already have statutes to protect private property and trespassers can be prosecuted in case of a problem. By adding a requirement for specific written permission, I fear that this just adds needless hassles and puts well-meaning citizens at risk of expensive fines. It will discourage people from giving out food at all.

Public property is a trickier animal, and the one that gives me the most concern. Some opponents have argued that we should be able to do what we want on public property, but that is nonsensical. Public property belongs—in theory—to all of us, but we appoint public officials to manage it. You cannot walk into the White House and make yourself at home because your taxes pay for it. The City Council has a right to say what can and cannot be done on public streets, parks, et cetera.

My concern stems from the “written permission” clause. If I wanted to take food downtown, or to a public park—where the homeless are—I have to first seek written permission. That causes a problem itself, but the bigger issue is what the City will require of me before they are willing to grant such permission. If they intend to enforce the standards listed for “recognized” food providers, it will be difficult for anyone other than large, well-funded and well-organized groups to meet those standards.

Here, we have moved from a question of “rights” to a question of “wisdom.” Yes, it is perfectly within the rights of the City Council to regulate what happens on public land, but by forcing charitable individuals and organizations to accommodate the new ordinance is going to result in a dramatic decrease in this kind of charitable activity. The community still has good reason to push back against this move.

Though I am glad to see groups from across the ideological and religious spectrum coming together against this ordinance, I wish that the same views would be applied to things such as healthcare, education and energy. In a sense they are vastly different issues. These are goods that are sold as commodities, while this regulation is about charity. But though the fuel may be different, the engines run the same way.

Ultimately, this is about getting goods to the people who want them in the most efficient and effective way possible. Whether or not payment is involved is only a matter of incentive. Whether we are trying to reach the hungry, the uneducated, the sick or the freezing, regulations frequently get in the way of delivering the goods. For large businesses, burdensome regulations result in layoffs, price hikes, wage cuts and slower growth. But small businesses—some of which are barely getting off the ground—struggle even to survive. This means fewer opportunities for entrepreneurs and low-wage workers, and less competition in the marketplace.

Flexibility, fewer barriers, low costs and high rewards are the ingredients to a booming business (or non-profit). Most regulations counter all of these. Sometimes regulations are needed, and can even help smooth out barriers and increase overall productivity. But Annise Parker’s proposal only makes private activity more difficult and, like so many welfare regulations, transfers control of charitable decisions from the individual to the political.

I fear that, if this passes, people will begin looking to large organizations to handle these charitable activities. Perhaps they will eventually look to the city itself. Taking care of those in need is a very personal right and responsibility that should never be subsumed by political officers. Let friends and neighbors teach their children, let churches build hospitals, let companies explore and innovate, and let us be Good Samaritans in our own way.

The City Council will be considering the revised ordinance on April 3, 2012. Individuals who would like to address the Council during this meeting should call 832-393-1100 and ask to speak about the amendment to Chapter 20.

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