There are approximately 610,000 people in the U.S. who could be classified as homeless on any given night, and more than 3.5 million will experience homelessness within a given year, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But while the problem is clearly visible in cities throughout the nation, solutions are anything but.

Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, says that the problem is big and getting bigger. “There is no city in the country that is able to shelter all of its homeless population,” he says. “Nearly one third of the nation’s homeless are unsheltered.”

Lack of adequate resources means the homeless often go hungry. Many homeless individuals have come to rely on food-sharing programs – loose collections of volunteers, usually faith-based, that hand out meals in set locations at set times.

However, Stoops says, recently there has been a trend across the country to regulate and ban these types of programs. “Since 2007 there have been 71 cities that have either attempted or enacted food sharing restrictions,” he says. These cities include Atlanta, Phoenix, Denver, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Oklahoma City and Dallas.

Usually, Stoops says, the reasons given for limiting food sharing is to encourage homeless individuals to participate in more well-regulated programs. However, he says, the more controversial motivation for  such laws is to control the visibility of growing numbers of homeless individuals.  

“They cloak the language of the law with nice verbiage,” Stoops says, “but the real motivation from cities is that they simply hope that by restricting the sharing of food that it will force people to seek shelter… and will make the homeless folks less visible.”   

Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Stoops says, is one example. Since May, the city has passed five laws regulating how, when and where charitable organizations and individuals can interact with the homeless. However, due to controversies over food sharing regulations, a Florida circuit court judge temporarily halted the city’s public feeding ordinance on Dec. 2.  

What caused the initial problem, according to Fort Lauderdale’s Mayor Jack Seiler, was that certain downtown locations were being overwhelmed by food-sharing programs. During scheduled sharing times, parks would essentially become off limits to anyone not involved with the event, and often there was little or no effort made to clean up afterward.

Seiler says, as the mayor, he must represent everyone in the city: businesses, residents, visitors – and the homeless. The food-sharing ordinance, he says, was an attempt to strike a balance that would benefit all involved parties.

“I have to make sure our public parks and public spaces are open and accessible to everyone,” Seiler says. “The feedback I was getting…was that no one could come to the park.” So, the ordinances were passed regulating, not limiting, these programs.

“They actually extended and expanded the number of places these feedings can take place,” says Seiler, “[with the changes], any house of worship in the city can now host a feeding.”

He says additionally, for outdoor programs, reasonable requirements were put into place. Restrooms must be available. Sanitary conditions must be maintained. A feeding cannot be within 500 feet of another feeding. “Anybody that takes the time to read the ordinance recognizes these are common-sense proposals,” says Seiler. “These are regulations that are not burdensome.”  

But, on Nov. 2, Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old World War II veteran, made national news when he was stopped by police for improperly handing out food to the homeless. Mark Sims, the rector of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, Fla., who was also cited that day, says the ordinance, now on hold, negatively impacted the homeless, who have come to rely on these programs.

“The restrictions are such that you’ve really got to jump through some hoops and check off the boxes to try and provide some simple, compassionate feeding to people living on the street,” Sims says. “It makes it almost impossible to have a food-sharing program that meets the strict requirements that the city is asking us to meet.”

Seiler disagrees. He says the media unfairly made it seem like Fort Lauderdale leveled a de-facto ban against food-sharing programs, and is attempting to sweep the problem of homelessness under the rug. “It’s flat-out wrong,” he says.

Seiler says his city is progressive and compassionate in its response to the homeless, and stricter regulation on individual food sharing would eventually help guide the homeless to the more organized services they need – rather than just providing them with a meal.

“If someone’s out on the street for their breakfast, lunch and dinner, and they never interact with anybody that has the ability to assist them other than to give them that meal, how do you get that [individual] off the street?” Seiler asks.
Sims, however, is encouraged by the decision to halt the food sharing regulations, and says he hopes the city will recognize residents’ beliefs that individuals have a right to care for the homeless through actions that do not necessarily involve large, city-sanctioned centers. “Especially, when these centers are currently turning away clients because of overcapacity,” he adds.

Greater Broward County, where Fort Lauderdale is located, is approaching the issue in a different way: proactive policing.
“Homeless individuals are not problem people,” says Broward County Sherriff Scott Israel. “They are people with problems.”
This philosophy lead Israel to start the Homeless Outreach Initiative. As part of the initiative, deputies for the department take part in a 2-hour crisis intervention training where they learn to identify the underlying issues a homeless individual may be experiencing. To date, 333 officers have completed this training.

Officers can then volunteer for more specialized homeless outreach training, working directly with advocacy groups to provide homeless individuals with resources, rather than perpetuating cycles of arrest and release. This training consists of 40 hours of advanced education on the homelessness issue, including causation, prevention, needs-assessment, continuity of care and legal issues. The department currently has 46 members on its Homeless Outreach Team.

Arresting a homeless person for minor infractions and later releasing them – a common practice, according to Israel – does not address the problem in the long term. Instead, by training officers to connect homeless people to the resources they need to better themselves, Israel says his department has seen marked improvements.

“I believe if we take this holistic, compassionate approach to the homeless, that crime is going to go down, and we’re going to enhance the quality of life for the citizens we serve,” says Israel. “When you give people a chance, when you show compassion, you turn lives around.”

While the program is relatively new, empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests there have been reductions in the county’s homeless population. At the program’s implementation in 2013, the Broward Regional Health Planning Council documented 2,810 homeless individuals living in the county limits. In 2014, that number was down to 2,726.

Santa Barbra County, Calif., is also working to help the homeless – specifically homeless veterans – with its Stand Down event. Though not officially sponsored by the county, the effort is spearheaded by Steve Lavagnino, chairman of the county board of supervisors.

Stand Downs have been around since the late ‘80s, with hundreds of events across the country to help veterans in distress, many of whom are homeless. Lavagnino describes Santa Barbara’s annual event as a collaboration between private and public community service providers to help veterans get back on their feet. But finding out exactly how to do that has been a learning process.

At first, Lavagnino thought that, by giving men and women clothes, sleeping bags and hygiene products, the problem would right itself. “Before I really learned too much about the homeless issue, I was thinking what we really needed to do is just give these guys things,” he says. However, Lavagnino learned that materials can only go so far.

The event now aims to solve root problems and connect veterans with the resources they need to get help for their individual situations. “[The Stand Down] has changed its focus to ‘Let’s get these guys reconnected into the community,’” says Lavagnino. “It’s not a hand out… it’s a hand up – we’re putting our hand out there wanting to help pull them up.”
Held annually in the Santa Maria Fair Park, a fenced green space with two large convention centers, the event provides food, clothing and hygiene products and connecting vets to services including:

  • Employment agencies
  • Secondary schooling
  • PTSD screenings
  • Drug and alcohol abuse programs
  • The District Attorneys Office
  • Health and Human Services
  • Governmental assistance programs

Last year’s event helped about 500 area veterans, says Lavagnino. About 125 of the veterans were homeless. The Stand Down uses zero tax dollars and is funded through donations, grants and volunteers.


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