A volunteer group that has been feeding homeless people in Houston with heaping plates of rice, fresh fruit and vegetables outside the city’s library for more than a decade is fighting a local law that could cost $23,500 in fines.
The Houston Police Department has issued at least 47 tickets to volunteers for the group, Houston Food Not Bombs, since March for violating a city ordinance that restricts meal donations.
The ordinance is not new.
It was enacted in 2012 and bars people and organizations from holding events where food is given free to five or more people in need, on public or private property, without approval from the property owner.
When the ordinance was passed, Annise D. Parker, then the mayor, designated the plaza in front of the central Houston Public Library for Food Not Bombs volunteers, and the group was able to continue providing meals there.
Now, the city says there has been an increase in harassment outside the library because of the meal donations, which happen four times a week after the library closes. The city has said that it plans to continue issuing tickets and that the group could serve platters of food somewhere else.
Paul Kubosh, a lawyer for Food Not Bombs volunteers, said that he had asked the city to prove an increase in harassment and that the tickets unfairly targeted the volunteers. Each ticket carries a penalty of up to $500, he said.
On Thursday, a judge dismissed eight tickets after the police officers who issued them did not appear in court, Mr. Kubosh said. The city plans to refile the dismissed cases, including one against an 87-year-old volunteer, he said.
The city attorney, Arturo G. Michel, said in an emailed statement that Houston would continue to “vigorously pursue” ordinance violations.
“It is a health and safety issue for the protection of Houston’s residents,” he said.
The mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, said on Friday that the city was not opposed to groups that feed homeless people but that the meal donations were discouraging visitors to the library.
“After people provide the food, they leave, but those who are homeless camp around the library and stay,” he said.
The city is funding food donations through a different charity at a parking lot outside a courthouse and jail, about a half mile from the library, and invited Food Not Bombs to serve meals there.
Shere Dore, a Food Not Bombs volunteer in Houston, said in May that the group decided not to move to that location in part because the people served spend much of their day at the library to escape bad weather and to charge devices such as cellphones, the television station ABC13 reported.
In a separate legal action, a Food Not Bombs volunteer, Phillip Picone, filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ordinance for violating his rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
His lawyer has also asked the court to temporarily stop enforcement of the food ordinance. In its response, the city said Mr. Picone could donate meals somewhere else. The case remains pending.
Mr. Picone, 66, has been volunteering since 2011 with Houston Food Not Bombs, which has been serving homeless people and families experiencing food insecurity. He said there were about 150 to 200 people who come by each night for home-cooked meals provided by volunteers.
He said that Houston Food Not Bombs, which started in 1994, did not want to move to the location suggested by the city for several reasons. Most of the people whom the group helps are homeless and are likely to have had previous interactions with law enforcement, so serving food next to the city jail could deter the group’s ability to reach people.
“Food Not Bombs really fills a need that’s been needed to be filled for a long time, and the city is just now in 2023 trying to offer what it says is a solution,” he said. “How many years, how many decades have you waited? So, no, we don’t have the trust in them to really do it.”
Houston Food Not Bombs said that the city ordinance needed to be abolished because “people need to be allowed to go out with no advance notice or application process and find homeless people” and give food wherever they are.
Food Not Bombs is an international group that says its vegetarian and vegan meal donations are a protest against war and poverty.
The group has more than 1,000 chapters worldwide, according to its website, and several chapters have challenged laws that restrict the group’s activities.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the Food Not Bombs chapter there challenged a city ordinance that restricted food giveaways.
A federal appeals court ruled in the group’s favor in 2021, saying that the city could not regulate the group’s food sharing because doing so violated the group’s First Amendment rights.