7 legal ways to help the homeless, as cities crack down on ‘street feeding’

News, Rights

Last month, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, passed a law restricting how and where people may feed the homeless. A week after it passed, the law was put into use when two pastors and a senior citizen were arrested for feeding the homeless on a beach.

Helping the homeless just got harder

Fort Lauderdale is just one of several cities across the country implementing restrictions on how and where the homeless can be fed. The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that since January 2013, 21 cities have implemented such restrictions.

Cities including Seattle, Salt Lake City and Charlotte have passed restrictions primarily aimed at stopping, or at least relocating, “street feeding” programs in which organizations dole out food to the homeless in public areas. These restrictions are enforced by requiring adherence to food safety regulations, limiting the using of public spaces or requiring a permit to distribute food on public property.

The intention is to emphasize economic development and to make tourism more attractive by preventing large crowds of homeless people from gathering in public places.

Violators of Fort Lauderdale’s law face up to 60 days in jail, but violators in other municipalities usually face only fines.

7 ways to help those in need – legally

So what’s the best way to help the homeless over the holidays without getting in trouble? Here are ways you can legally help those in need this season. 

1) Feed the homeless in private. The restrictions like those in Fort Lauderdale curtail feeding in public places but don’t restrict feeding the homeless in private places like shelters and churches. 

2) Give to the homeless you know personally. Will you get in trouble if you give a bagel to the homeless person you pass every day on the corner of your street? Probably not. The restrictions are focused on limiting programs that draw dozens of people or more; they aren’t aimed at individuals helping out one homeless person at a time. 

3) Give your time. There are thousands of food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters across the country, many of which are in need of volunteers during the holidays and throughout the year.

Or contact your local Salvation Army, which provides housing and food to homeless individuals and families, to see if they need help ringing a bell in their famous annual Red Kettle campaign. 

4) Give your talents. Consider giving not just your time but also your talents to help those in need. Lawyers can work pro bono, as can dentists, doctors and other professionals. Using the links above, contact shelters or other organizations near you and ask what kind of help they could use. If you can’t help directly, maybe you can connect them with someone who can. 

5) Give food, clothing and other items. Can’t donate your time? Donate things instead. Ask the organization you want to donate to what it is looking for and what it will not accept. In terms of food, canned foods in good condition and dry, non-perishable goods like rice are great items to donate, while perishable foods like bread and milk are not.

Many organizations that distribute food to the homeless also have infrastructure and programs in place to distribute clothing and other items. Coats and other cold-weather items are usually appreciated.

6) Give money. There’s disagreement over whether it’s a good idea to give cash directly to the homeless. Some people are certain that the money will be used for drugs and alcohol; others don’t mind what the money is used for. If you’re not comfortable giving cash on the streets, consider giving money to organizations that provide services to the homeless instead. Find an organization you can feel good about donating to on Charity Navigator.

7) Start something new. If you’re not satisfied with the resources available to help the homeless in your community, come up with something yourself. You could partner with an existing organization by spearheading a food or clothing drive, or you could start from scratch, gathering the resources you need as you go. Even if it’s something small, start this season; who knows how big it could grow in the future. After all, the programs, soup kitchens and shelters that exist today started with the vision of one person.

Photo: lev radin / Shutterstock.com

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