Texas man ticketed for feeding the homeless outside Houston library is found not guilty

Aug 2, 2023, 12:36 PM

HOUSTON (AP) — A man has been found not guilty of breaking a law against feeding homeless people outside a public library in Houston, concluding the first trial to be held after dozens of tickets were issued against volunteers for the group Food Not Bombs.

Friday’s verdict in the sprawling Texas city is latest flashpoint in the debate in many American cities over whether feeding the homeless is an act of charity or a crime that raises health and safety concerns among people who live and work nearby.

“This law that the city has passed is absurd. It criminalizes the Samaritan for giving,” lawyer Paul Kubosh, who represented volunteer Phillip Picone, told KPRC 2 after last week’s verdict.

The city of Houston said it will continue to “vigorously pursue violations of its ordinance relating to feeding of the homeless,” according to a statement released to news outlets.

“It is a health and safety issue for the protection of Houston’s residents,” city attorney Arturo Michel said.

Food Not Bombs had provided meals four nights a week outside the Houston Public Library for decades without incident. But the city posted a notice at the site warning that police would soon start issuing citations, and the first came in March.

City regulations on who can provide free meals outdoors to those in need were enacted in 2012. The ordinance requires such groups to get permission from property owners if they feed more than five people, but it wasn’t enforced until recently, Nick Cooper, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs, told The Associated Press in March.

The office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had said tickets were being issued in part because of an increased number of threats and violent incidents directed at employees and visitors to the library by homeless individuals. The office said the city had started providing meals and other services for homeless individuals at an approved facility located about a mile (.6 kilometer) north of the library.

“We simply cannot lose control of the iconic and historic building that is intended to be a special and safe place for all,” the mayor’s office said.

Cooper said that the approved location wasn’t ideal because it is close to a police station, although Food Not Bombs members were willing to discuss alternatives.

The group has argued that the city’s law is immoral and violates freedoms of expression and religion, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Picone, the Food Not Bombs volunteer, had received a criminal citation in March after police allegedly told the group to move their operations to another location, the Chronicle reported. As of last week, group members have received 45 tickets, each seeking $254, for continuing to pass out meals at the library.

The newspaper reported that Picone’s trial was the first for the series of tickets that were issued. Nine more tickets are scheduled for court on Thursday and Friday.

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Texas man ticketed for feeding the homeless outside Houston library is found not guilty