By Miriam Raftery
January 16, 2018 (El Cajon) – The arrests of a dozen activists at Wells Park in El Cajon for defying the city’s ban on feeding homeless people on public property over Martin Luther King Jr. birthday weekend has made news around the world. Headline stories have been reported in the BBC in England and Canada, Britain’s the Guardian newspaper, MSN, Huffington Post, and other national and international media.
A national petition on the Care2 site calling on El Cajon to end the ban has been signed by 37,000 people.
Yesterday the city has issued a statement standing behind its actions as appropriate to prevent spread of Hepatitis A during a countywide health emergency. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)has also issued a statement condemning the arrests as “unconstitutional and “cruel.” Activists arrested and their attorneys also held a press conference denouncing the ban and threatening legal action.
The city’s statement contends that the ordinance, passed at the height of the Hepatitis A outbreak, is necessary to “to protect the public’s health, and was meant to be temporary until the County lifts its emergency declaration.
The city claims, “During this time, the City has worked closely with community groups that have historically fed homeless individuals in the park. These groups were in support of the City Council’s action. After passing the ordinance in October 2017, the City took strides to inform the public of the more than a dozen locations where food is served and distributed. The City also published a list of restaurants that honor food stamps provided to eligible homeless individuals.”
El Cajon’s statement adds that “substantial warnings” were provided over the past several weeks before the city took steps to enforce the ban. The release concludes, “The City encourages those that wish to feed homeless individuals to work with existing community groups.”
The city also provided this list of locations, dates and times of food distribution where the homeless can receive food in El Cajon.
The ACLU, in a letter sent to the city attorney before the arrests, objected to the ban on constitutional grounds. In a statement after the arrests, the civil rights organization writes,“In keeping with the principles of the U.S. Constitution that the ACLU defends every day, and the enduring human values we celebrate on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we once again urge the City of El Cajon to rescind its ban on sharing food with people experiencing hunger and homelessness. Further, we urge the City to drop charges against the nine arrested for their expressions of charity.”
At a press conference yesterday, activists including some of those arrested held a “Break the ban” press conference, telling media they plan to ask a court to dismiss criminal charges on constitutional grounds and file a civil lawsuit against the city.
Lawsuits have been filed elsewhere over bans on feeding homeless in public places. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a court struck down the city’s ban on feeding homeless in public places as unconstitutional in 2014. Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old World War II veteran arrested for violating the ban, has resumed feeding the homeless and the city agreed to suspend its ban. In Houston, a man filed suit in November, claiming a similar ban infringed on his religious beliefs to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving.
Cities that impose such bans have argued that their intent is to protect public health, but the website Legal Match notes that opponents contend the trend is part of an effort to criminalize homelessness with bans on panhandling, sleeping on public streets or even in vehicles – all measures that have faced court challenges or are currently awaiting hearings in the legal system,