Stupid Laws of the Week to Vegas and Orlando

The Stupid Law of the Week Award goes to the cities of Las Vegas and Orlando, both of which have sought to restrict or outright ban people from feeding the homeless in the parks of those cities. You can feed your family at a park in Vegas, and you can feed your friends and neighbors if you have a picnic there in public, but you can't give a sandwich to a homeless person in a park. In Orlando, meanwhile, city officials have required people to pay for a permit for the privilege of giving food to the homeless at a park.

I am writing about these ordinances now because they are so blatantly unconstitutional, not to mention stupid and unenforceable, that they won't last long on the books. But of course they will cost both of those cities plenty of time, energy and money defending the effort in court from the litigation that is sure to follow. When you read the stories linked above, don't you think about the first President Bush, who asked us all to become "a thousand points of light" to help those left fortunate than ourselves? And don't you then find it bizarre that local officials would try to thwart precisely the kind of private sector support that is a big part of the push to help keep people off the public dole?

The new law is especially offensive In Las Vegas because it seeks to criminalize or fine people for feeding homeless people. Can you imagine how the police are supposed to enforce that? Can you imagine why the police would want to enforce that when Las Vegas has monumentally more important crime problems with which to deal? Vegas doesn't want compassionate citizens "luring" homeless people out to parks (like they were pigeons out for breadcrumbs) because then public drunkeness or litter or crime can become a problem. Of course, the solution would be to simply enforce the existing laws against public drunkeness, litter or crime. But apparently that's not good enough for the folks who ask the rest of us to go to Las Vegas to gamble, drink and visit prostitutes. By the way, you've got to love a city where it is legal to pay for sex but illegal to give away a sandwich in a park.

Cities all across the country have tried for decades now, since at least the Reagan era, to try to marginalize the homeless-- to make it harder, in effect, to be homeless, as if the designation and lifestyle always is a choice, which it is not. This is just the continuation of that sad trend taken to an absurd end. But the civil rights lawyers are circling, and the lawsuits are on the way, and if I were the judge I would make those city officials who came up with the bright idea of preventing the homeless from being fed in public, and not the taxpayers, pay the costs of the ligitation that is to come.

Have a great weekend. Stay cool.

By Andrew Cohen |  July 28, 2006; 3:15 PM ET
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This law may be bad policy, and as Andrew says it may be stupid, but in what sense is it unconsitutional?

I am sure that if an ordinary individual, unaffiliated with a group offered his sandwich to a homeless person or any other stranger, it would not be illegal nor would the law be enforced. And certainly the law is structured to allow anyone to share a meal among friends. In some places a barbecue might even be permissable, although in many parks this too requires a permit. Even a homless person would be allowed the right to roast a weenie or flame broil a steak, so long as they brought it with them to the park in such a case.

This law is clearly targeted at organizations that dispense meals to the homeless. This is licensable or at least permit-able, it involves the same restrictions on public assembly as permit laws that may be required for marches and parades and protests.

There are rational grounds for such restrictions. First, there is the question of public health. There is a risk of spreading disease through improperly prepared foods. The same sort of thing that goes into licensing restaurants. Who is going to inspect the food? Further, are there sufficient facilities for the food waste of large numbers of homeless? Is there timely garbage collection, especially late in the day after evening meals? Otherwise there would be risk of disease and vermin.

Some people poison the pidgeons in the park, or at least they did in Tom Lehrer's day, so why might they not do so to the homeless?

Second there is the question of other citizens peacefully enjoying use of the parks. This is called crowd control. If there are large herds of homeless people assembling for food other people might not be able to enjoy the park. An occasional gathering for any purpose, gay pride parades, protests, or celebrating the 104th birthday of Mrs. Astor is always justified and welcome. But a regular gathering without a permit would be an imposition on others enjoyment of the park.

Finally, you suggest that the homless would not gather like pidgeons, but we know that people will come flock for freebies, whether they are rock concerts or chewing gum samples, or meals. This is human nature. And given that this is Las Vegas, which is really VERY hot -- I just returned from a convention -- there is a health risk in bringing people with limited health, which I assume many homeless are, out into the scorching heat.

So, I think cities and civic organizations should provide services for the homeless, including air conditioned or heated shelters and at least one or two meals a day in an appropriate location. But distributing food to the homeless in public areas of recreation is not that great an idea, and if a city wants to pass a law restricting it, I bet they could defend it as a constitutional measure to protect the public health and to regular assembly.

Posted by: Constitutionalist | July 28, 2006 06:18 PM

Actually, prostitution is not legal in Las Vegas (Clark County).

Posted by: John | July 28, 2006 10:35 PM

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