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Outlawing Feeding Programs Suppresses Religious Liberty
and Violates International Human Rights Standards

By Robert M. Myers

Blessed are those who are generous, because they feed the poor.
– Proverbs 22:9

As the kick-off policy initiative of her reelection campaign, Council member Pam O’Connor wants to make criminals out of private citizens who feed the hungry in our community. O’Connor took this action in response to complaints from the Bayside District Corporation. This has been a familiar election-year theme for more than a decade, as Santa Monica leaders seek to placate those with much by depriving those with little of human dignity through a variety of punitive measures.

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The fruit of O’Connor’s political pandering is an ordinance to be considered by the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday night. (Voters concerned about civil rights laws, including rent control, should not even consider voting for politicians like O’Connor who don’t have the backbone to defend the powerless.) This ordinance attempts to criminalize those who answer their personal religious, political, or moral call to feed the hungry.

Share the Wealth

    1. God wants us
      to be our brother's keeper.
    2. To feed the hungry,
      to clothe the naked,
      to shelter the homeless,
      to instruct the ignorant,
      at a personal sacrifice,
      is what God
      wants us to do.
    What we give to the poor
    for Christ's sake
    is what we carry with us
    when we die.

– Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker

It is important to understand what this ordinance is about. Contrary to the City’s proffered justifications, this ordinance is not about concern for the quality of food served to homeless people, since the feeding programs provide safe and sanitary food which receives better reviews than the food provided by some City-funded programs.

It is not about the need for park space for other uses, since the feeding programs operate at times and places when there is ample room for everyone. It is not about "outsiders" coming to Santa Monica to serve the poor, since around the world "outsiders" are commended for their hunger relief efforts. It is not about preserving the City’s social service system, since it is already inadequate to meet the needs of the City’s homeless population and private efforts support rather than undermine efforts to aid the poor.

If one of your kinsman in any community is in need in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand to him in his need. Instead, you shall open your hand to him and freely lend him enough to meet his need. . . . When you give to him, give freely and not with ill will; for the Lord, your God, will bless you for this in all your works and undertakings. The needy will never be lacking in the land; that is why I command you to open your hand to your poor and needy kinsman in your country.
– Deuteronomy, 15:7-11

Make no mistake about it. This ordinance aims to drive homeless people out of Santa Monica. Since 1991, the City has pursued a four-part strategy to run homeless people out of town. First, the City articulates the principle that only "professional" social service agencies should help the homeless. Second, it limits the number of social service agencies – and, correspondingly, the number of homeless people served – through the City’s funding process. Third, it repeatedly attempts to curtail private efforts to help the homeless. Fourth, it unleashes punitive law enforcement measures against homeless people remaining in public spaces.

[P]eople experiencing homelessness are subject to basic violations of their civil rights through the unconstitutional application of laws, arbitrary police practices and discriminatory public regulations. Local governments, police departments, and local business improvement districts, from our largest cities to our most rural communities, are diverting precious public resources and funding to penalize people for being homeless. Lacking private spaces in which to carry out life-sustaining activities such as sleeping, resting, storing personal belongings, or activities associated with personal hygiene, people experiencing homelessness face the further indignity of arrest. They will still be homeless when released but leave with a criminal record and another barrier to obtaining housing. These short-sighted laws and practices may make good sound bites but only serve to invest more tax dollars in jails than in housing, health care and services.
-- Illegal to be Homeless: The Criminalization of the Homeless in the United States

These efforts are part of a larger battle in our society between rich and poor. People with houses, businesses, and ample resources do not want homeless people in our community. Although the Bayside District Corporation has no problem with businesses that sell sweatshop-made products on the Third Street Promenade, it doesn’t want homeless people tarnishing the shopping experience of its upscale clientele.

The City of Santa Monica is one of the wealthiest communities in Southern California and some of our residents find it uncomfortable to be reminded that the presence of hungry people is the consequence of economic and tax policies which enhance the incomes of the prosperous at the expense of the poor. Indeed, the State budget is consistently balanced by slashing health and welfare expenditures and sparing the wealthy from tax increases.

The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is astonishing in an affluent society that anyone would be upset with citizens who volunteer to feed the hungry. 13.8 percent of Californians live in poverty and 4.1 percent of all households in the state do not have enough food to avoid hunger. Nationwide, more than 36 million people, including 14 million children, experience hunger. Private citizens responding to this overwhelming need should be commended, not prosecuted.

Then the King will say to those on the right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. Then these righteous ones will reply, `Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you? And the King will tell them, I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!
– Matthew 25:34-40

The human right to adequate food is recognized in several instruments under international law. In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt first articulated the human right of "freedom from want," including the right to food. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognize the right to food as a basic human right. Government efforts to outlaw food relief unmistakably contravene international law.

"The right to food is the right to have regular, permanent and unobstructed access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free from anxiety."
– United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Santa Monica clearly does not have the authority to legislate in contravention of these well-established religious and human rights principles. The men, women, and children providing food to the unfortunate of our community are good and decent people. The City Council should reconsider making their charitable works of mercy a crime in Santa Monica.

One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

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