When Phillip Paul Bryant was called to serve the homeless, he had no idea he was breaking the law. Now he faces fines and a lengthy court battle he considers well worth it in order to overturn what many view as an inhumane law. In 2012, Annise Parker, then mayor of Houston, passed an ordinance making it unlawful to feed five or more homeless people. Bryant’s lawyer, Eric Dick, thinks that law is ridiculous. “The law literally says that you can feed up to five people, but the fifth and beyond? Let them starve.” Originally enacted to discourage people from bringing food, and therefore, trash, into the streets and surrounding areas, the ordinance seemed unnecessary to many. After all, the city already has litter laws and nuisance laws, so this ordinance really boiled down to prohibiting good Samaritans from feeding those less fortunate. Dick explained that in order to lawfully feed those less fortunate, one must fill out an application and seek approval from the city. The application is lengthy and requires a printed map of the park where they wish to distribute food and a specific date for the distribution. The city parks director then has the authority to determine if that space may be used before issuing a permit.
For Bryant, that process just doesn’t make sense. He regularly keeps cans of tuna and water bottles in his car, which he hands out whenever he sees the need. Since that need can change from hour to hour, let alone from day to day, a permit for a specific location at a specific time doesn’t seem to serve the population he is trying to help. “The ordinance is mean-spirited,” said Dick. “Here’s someone trying to express love and compassion for his fellow human beings, and the city responds with a $2,000 fine. It’s a sad day when feeding a fellow human being who is starving becomes a crime.” Dick is representing his client to overturn the ordinance and states that whatever decision is made, it will be appealed and eventually land in the Supreme Court. As he says, it’s not just about unnecessary laws, it’s about “putting people above objects.” He feels the city has an alternative motive for the ordinance.
“They don’t want the homeless because they’re bad for business. They want to clear them all out so they can build high rises and charge more, plain and simple. In Houston, it’s a crime to be homeless, and unbelievably, it’s a crime to feed the homeless.” Dick has vowed to fight this ordinance to the end.