Houston News & Search
Photo: Jon Shapley, Staff
Phillip Bryant carries tuna cans and water bottles in his car and often spontaneously delivers them to the poor he sees throughout the Houston streets.
However, Bryant, who describes himself as a devout Christian, contends the city’s charitable feeding ordinance prohibits this and also violates his religious rights.
He filed a lawsuit Wednesday night in Harris County court challenging the ordinance, which requires advocates to obtain permission from property owners – public or private – before feeding more than five people. Violation of the ordinance is considered a criminal misdemeanor and is punishable by up to $2,000, according to the lawsuit.
Bryant and his attorneys plan to hold a press conference on Good Friday to discuss the lawsuit. Bryant himself has not been cited for violating the ordinance, said his attorney, Randall Kallinen.
“In the Bible, it’s mentioned repetitively feeding the poor, so certainly someone who would be following the teachings of Jesus Christ would say I should be feeding the homeless,” said Kallinen, who along with attorney Eric Dick, is representing Bryant. The charitable feeding ordinance has caused controversy since it was established five years ago. The city describes the ordinance as a way to uphold food safety and protect the rights of private property owners, but some homeless advocates view it as a way to regulate the tradition of charity.
Although not mandatory, the city encourages those feeding the homeless to register as a food service organization and receive food safety training. The only required step is a person must seek permission from the property owner before feeding more than five people.
In a related development, City Council passed Wednesday an ordinance to curb panhandling and a ban on unauthorized encampments in public places.
“We want people to be able to feed the homeless whenever, wherever they want to, like they were prior to this law being passed,” Kallinen said.
Various petitions have been advanced against the city’s charitable feeding ordinance including one started by Kallinen, which has more than 75,000 signatures. The city on Thursday declined to comment about the lawsuit.
Bryant agrees with critics of the ordinance, stating in his suit that it “regulates a natural expression of human compassion” and prohibits him “from sharing food and water with those that need help.”
As a Christian, Bryant says he does not want to seek permission to distribute food because he does not know “when Christ will compel him to share food” or when someone in need might ask him for food, according to his lawsuit.
Mike Blockson, outreach coordinator at Covenant House, a homeless youth shelter in Houston, said the ordinance creates more confusion.
“We have an agreement from the city to feed the homeless,” Blockson said. “Last year, there were certain parts of the city where they told us we can’t feed the homeless, and that’s just sending mixed messages.”
A right to feed them
For his job, Blockson will scour the streets three to four nights out of the week looking for homeless kids and feeding others he encounters. Before the ordinance passed, he said they were able to feed any homeless persons without seeking permission.
Bryant is requesting a jury trial for his case and ultimately wants the ordinance thrown out. Blockson also agrees with Bryant’s religious rights concerning his case.
“If God’s calling us to feed them, we have a right to feed them,” Blockson said.
Houston News & Search