Houston’s Perverse Anti-Feeding Ordinance

homelessA talk I gave recently at Houston City Hall regarding Houston’s anti-feeding ordinance:

Hello everyone, my name is Vic Wang and I’m the President of Humanists of Houston. We are a 501c non-profit dedicated to promoting the principles of secular humanism, and are currently the second largest chapter of the American Humanist Association in the country with over 1,800 members. Thank you for having me to speak here today.

On a monthly basis, our organization has been collaborating with the Houston chapter of Atheists Helping the Homeless to raise and distribute much-needed supplies to the city’s homeless population, including supplies such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, soaps, shampoos, clothing, feminine hygiene products, and perhaps most importantly, mosquito spray. After collecting these items from our members each month, we then hand them out directly to the homeless residents of Houston, serving an average of approximately fifty individuals per giveaway.

So you can perhaps understand why this ordinance is of particular interest to organizations such as ours, and I would like to express today a few of the reasons that I personally feel this ordinance should be overturned.

First there are the stated purposes of having the ordinance: The issue of littering. The issue of trespass on private property. And the issue of sanitation. But we already have laws in place regarding each of these concerns, without the need for such a restrictive city ordinance on top of the pre-existing laws. And if sanitation is such a concern, it makes little sense for the ordinance to cover ALL types of food items, including sealed, pre-packaged, unexpired food items as it currently does.

And I realize that the ordinance is not an outright ban on food distribution. But having access to a necessity as important as food is a basic human right–I hope we can all agree on that–and similarly, being able to provide that essential resource to people who need it is also a basic human right. So we as citizens, and as a city, should be doing everything we can to make it easier for anyone to do so, not putting up roadblocks and barriers including the threat of a $2,000 fine for anyone who chooses to exercise that basic human right.

And finally, another aspect of this ordinance that is of particular to concern to organizations such as ours. As much as I love our great state, the unfortunate reality is that local governments in Texas have quite simply had an abysmal track record when it comes to an awareness of religious privilege and the preservation of separation of church and state. Hawkins, TX. Beaumont, TX. Kountze, TX. China, TX. Sour Lake, TX. Kirbyville, TX. Lumberton, TX. These are just a few of the cities and towns in the past few years where government entities have shown undue favoritism for religion over non-religion time and time again, with some of these violations literally happening as we speak. And while it involved a federal and not a city government agency, it was just two short years ago that Houston was in national headlines over the fiasco involving Margaret Doughty’s application for citizenship, when she openly identified as an atheist and was denied.

So while I do not mean to suggest that the Houston ordinance is currently being run in anything but a fair manner, the reality is that a city ordinance which provides the government with the power to dictate which organizations can provide food to the homeless, at what locations, and even at what times on which days (and even–if I understand correctly–having the power to override the originally scheduled times and locations based on supply and demand)–this is a situation with enormous potential for abuse when it comes to the preferential treatment of organizations of a religious nature, and organizations such as ours which are of a purely secular nature.

And it is for these reasons that I ask for the Houston Feeding Ordinance to be lifted. Thank you.