The tragic logic of a collapsing empire.

People line up for food at Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs

People line up for food at Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs

Nearly one in eight Americans face hunger. For these 42 million people, the suffering is unfortunately only going to getting worse.

Most of us are familiar with the nagging worry that we might not be able to pay all of our bills. We’re terrified of a rent increase, about the cost of utilities, and that there always seems to be less and less money for food, clothing and other necessities.

The stress can be unbearable, causing sleeplessness and health problems. Fear of losing one’s job forces us to work under abusive conditions or take schedules that add to our stress. An injury, illness, foreclosure, unemployment, divorce, or family crisis hits, and before long we’re living in our car, on a friend’s couch, or even end up seeking sleep in a park or on a street corner.

At least six people approached me in May 2017 who told me they had just lost their housing. Three or four people spoke with me in June about seeking shelter and food; a few more told me they moved to the streets in July, and more in August and September. Six people who had just lost their housing in Santa Cruz spoke to me seeking information about shelter or other services in just the first six days of October. I could sense their embarrassment in their soft whispers of shame as they asked about a safe place to sleep, where to take a shower or could find a regular meal. I could see the shock of those first days on the street in their eyes.

I have been sharing vegan meals with America’s hungry for nearly 38 years. In that time, I have never witnessed so much suffering as I have now. In years past, one or two people per month might have admitted to me they just lost their homes, but today it’s closer to four to six people who approach me every month. And with the proposed cuts in food stamps and housing assistance, and the skyrocketing cost of rent, it’s only going to get worse.

What might be more troubling however is the response of the local authorities in nearly every American city – to drive those without housing away, staggering from place to place as they must. Their pitiful belongings, necessities for survival on the street, are confiscated and trashed. Police ransack and destroy tents, blankets, coats, and shoes as their owners stand by helpless.

At the same time, city after city passes laws banning or limiting the sharing of meals with the ever-growing population of internally-displaced Americans.

Nearly every day, there is news of another city threatening to stop what the authorities have come to call “street feeding,” using as an excuse the relatively new myth that providing meals to the hungry on the streets or in parks “only enables” the homeless and deters them from seeking help at indoor facilities.

“Don’t feed people living on the streets,” declares the City of Phoenix in a report by KJZZ journalist Christina Estes in a September 2016 story on NPR. In addition, the City began a program called the “Street Feeding Collaborative,” which morphed into the more upbeat-sounding “Success off the Streets Collaborative.” Brenna Goth reports in a December 2016 story in The Arizona Republic: ”The city is calling the few dozen organizations the Success off the Streets Collaborative. Members are encouraging groups to trade street feeding for work with licensed providers, or to support formerly homeless people once they are housed.”

Mike Atanasio posted news of this campaign to drive the homeless out of sight on the Facebook site “Arizona Friends of Homeless,” along with photos of people being forced from Hance Park. Atanasio states:

“OUTREACH 10/11/17 – bad news for outreach groups at parks. the city parks department has turned heavy handed about homelessness.. in addition to telling some homeless at Hance Park that they had to take their belongings out of the park.. they are also forcing outreach groups 
to distribute ONLY commercially prepared foods. Wrapped.. candy bars.. bottled water.. etc.. that just quadrupled the cost of providing foods to the homeless in parks instead of 25c bowl[s] of soup… we would have to buy $1 hot dogs we have been able to make nearly 5 gallons of soup… that feeds 50-60 for $10.. that is no longer possible… to feed the same 60 people would require $60 +/-…not feasible… in addition to having a food handler’s card… we would need a permit from the city… well we know how that worked out at Cass… it was never definitive how to get a permit… or how much… this is very foolish. We will still do our outreach.. but limited in scope… whack-a-mole doesn’t work.”

San Jose Food Not Bombs has been another one of the groups threatened by local authorities. Food Not Bombs has been sharing free vegan meals at St James Park for more than 15 years, and is just one of many groups that have been sharing meals there with the hungry.

“We believe that it’s a church’s right to be able to feed the poor,” said Pastor Scott Wagers of CHAM Ministries, which has been sharing meals with the hungry in St James Park for 20 years. “That’s an extension of our religious freedom, and the bottom line is we’ll fight for this.”

In an attempt to justify the ban, assistant parks and recreation director Matt Cano told the San Jose Mercury News: “Everybody is really focused on making sure that the daily experience of everybody using the park, whether it’s a resident who lives near there or someone doing business near there, is a great experience. We are trying to reactivate the park with things like yoga, movies at night, [and] running clubs. We all need great open spaces.”

Again attempting to justify the ban, Councilman Raul Peralez wrote a letter to homeless advocates saying that “Feeding our homeless must be done in a manner that is consistent and combined with the other wrap-around services that our homeless neighbors need to get back on their feet.”

Such “wrap-around services,” refer to the concentration of service providers used by those living on the streets, where one might access food, housing, addiction treatment, jobs, mental health and medical care all at one location.

Councilman Peralez also advances the failed theory that “street feeding” enables the homeless to stay homeless, and that they would have access to recovery programs and jobs if they were unable to get meals on the streets and were forced to eat indoors at “established” programs offering wrap-around services.

Why are they doing this now? Participants in the social networking site generated e-mails to city officials urging them to stop the sharing of meals at St James Park. This e-mail campaign might not have reflected the true feelings of the majority of the community, and may have been inspired by the police department and/or business interests.

San Jose is just one of many cities where policies against those who don’t have housing are advanced on in coordination with local police officials. For instance, Fortune magazine reported in July 2014, “Nextdoor had formed more than 170 partnerships with police departments and agencies, adding new cities at a much faster clip, potentially leading to a new phase of growth for the site.” Says Lt. Chris Bolton of Oakland P.D.: “I view Nextdoor as neighborhood watch for the 21st century,” having helped pilot his department’s partnership with Nextdoor in April 2014.

Local Food Not Bombs volunteers believe this campaign on could in part have been where the impetus for the new policy against sharing meals in the park originated.

On July 28th, I called the Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services director’s office to find out if churches feeding the hungry at St. James Park would be cited with an infraction or a misdemeanor. Additionally, I asked if the Department knew where the idea of providing wrap-around services originated. Their spokesman had no idea, and she directed me to Ray Bramson, Director of Housing, whose office I could not reach. They never returned my calls. Ironically, the “wrap-around services” they cite as a reason for ending “street feeding” must by definition include Food Not Bombs, since I receive at least one or two calls every few months from hungry people referred to San Jose Food Not Bombs by San Jose Social Services.

Over 70 American cities have passed laws banning or limiting the sharing of free food outside in public spaces. In the first seven months of this year, authorities arrested Food Not Bombs volunteers in Tampa, told Miami Food Not Bombs volunteers they couldn’t share food, and have introduced a new ordinance against sharing meals outside in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

During the past six months, police told Food Not Bombs volunteers to stop sharing meals in Buffalo, New York and Eureka, California, and sent health department officials to interfere with Food Not Bombs in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. The struggle for the right of Food Not Bombs to share meals outside in Houston, Texas is also heating up, and anti-homeless advocates in Santa Cruz, California continue their attempts to close the twice-weekly Food Not Bombs meal, and have even been pressuring local government officials to hire anti-homeless consultant Robert Marbut, employed by dozens of cities around the US to “solve the homeless problem,” in part by demanding an end to “street feeding”.

I first learned of Robert Marbut after reading about the arrest of 90-year-old Arnold Abbott and Food Not Bombs volunteers for sharing food outside the downtown library in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

NPR’s Rachel Martin interviewed Marbut in 2014. The city had hired him to solve their homeless problem. Says Marbut: “If you give food on the street, you end up in a very convoluted way, but still an important way, you end up preventing people from going into 24/7 programming.” Marbut’s “The Seven Guiding Principles of Homeless Transformation — Moving from Enablement to Engagement” states in principle 6, “Street feeding programs without comprehensive services actually increase and promote homelessness.”

Marbut’s model program is the 37-acre Haven for Hope campus that opened in the summer of 2010 in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Local media welcomed the opening, claiming “Comprehensive services like those provided at Haven For Hope are typically only available in state prisons.” In line with the analogy, the campus has 550 closed-circuit television cameras and a staff of 40 security guards.

The San Antonio Express published an article in 2015 titled “Street feeding causing headaches.” After five years the Express was reporting that Marbut’s program had yet to solve the homeless problem and that the city had also failed to end “street feeding.” It read in part: “When Haven opened in 2010, the city made street feeding of the homeless illegal, unless it’s done by licensed kitchens”, yet the only high profile enforcement of this law was against a licensed kitchen. Chef Joan Cheever, owner of Chow Train, was cited and threatened with a $2,000 fine for sharing food with the hungry at Maverick Park in April of 2015.

Despite the backing and leadership of city officials, sending people to Haven For Hope and writing a law against sharing food with the hungry on the streets has failed to force the homeless out of sight. Sixteen years after outlawing “street feeding” in San Antonio, the Rivard Report covered the Department of Public Works and Haven For Hope’s program of periodic cleanups of homeless camps, suggesting that “Dozens of homeless camps are hiding in plain sight throughout downtown San Antonio.”

San Antonio is not the only city to witness the failure of programs based on Marbut’s theory. Fort Smith, Arkansas, Placer County and Fresno, California, and Daytona Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, Key West, Sarasota, St. Petersburg and Pensacola, Florida are among the cities that tried Marbut’s program only to find that hundreds of people are still forced to live on the streets.

As an example, Daytona Beach sought his services. After failing to drive the homeless out of town they renewed Marbut’s contract in January 2015, which came at a cost of $7,201.25 per month for 14 months, plus up to $35,000 for expenses. Marbut’s total compensation from the city has now reached roughly $185,000, an incredible amount from a single medium-sized city.

St Petersburg, Florida also hired Marbut, and suggestion opened The Pinellas Safe Harbor facility in the old county jail at his suggestion. According to sheriff’s department data collected from 2011 through 2013, just 7% of those leaving the facility found permanent housing, while 3% went to another shelter, or to a friend or relative. Most returned to the streets within a month.

Santa Cruz, California anti-homeless activist Janet Fardette has e-mailed officials several times suggesting the city hire Marbut. In a February 13, 2017 e-mail she asks that city officials look into “Robert Marbut’s widely successful” theory mentioned on NPR, “More Cities Are Making It Illegal To Hand Out Food To The Homeless.”

On March 3, 2017 she sent a impassioned e-mail recommending Marbut to Santa Cruz County Supervisors Ryan Coonerty and Bruce McPherson, Santa Cruz Mayor Chase, and Santa Cruz Councilpersons Noroyan and Terrazas.

Subject: Feeding on Public Streets
I am writing to you all to recommend a way to approach our mutual understanding that feeding people on public streets is NOT empowering the homeless or keeping our community healthy. I left the meeting last week, with the Supervisors, feeling like we were, once again, going after “little efforts” in the hope that they would add up to making big changes. After making calls, making requests, and seeing some differences made in our environment downtown, I know from experience that these will be temporary. Until we all unite and face the overwhelming homeless “enabling” that goes on in our city, nothing will truly change.

I, too, realize that anyone in a political spot, that being all of you, does not want to jeopardize getting re‐elected. That’s hugely important.

To insure that that does not happen because of your efforts to control the feeding on public streets, I have one suggestion and I hope it will spark your interest in pursuing more information about the subject. My realization was that the only way we are truly going to tackle all these problems and empower the homeless, keep our city clean and you all your civic jobs…is to investigate and ultimately employ an outside consulting firm that specializes in helping cities overwhelmed with the homeless. That will protect your jobs and help to educate our community about what works and doesn’t work with regard to truly helping homeless people.

…We are so “ripe” for this to happen. I would be more than happy to do deep investigating on this subject but, feel it is your responsibility and YOU are the ones who have the power here to make that call and difference. All of you, as a committee of concerned Santa Cruzans need to come to a consensus on hiring someone to take on analyzing and recommending what we need to do to reduce the homeless population here. I have no investment in Robert Marbut’s Consulting Firm. I know only what I have read. I encourage ALL of YOU to go to his website and read about his program, how it works, etcetera. Call and ask questions. Deborah Elston called one of their recent clients in California.

I’m pretty sure it was a city council member in Buena Park who raved about the impact he’d made in their city. I believe he brought down the CALLS TO SEVICE by 31% in one year’s time. There are answers and they do work.
I encourage ALL of you to pull together. Our City deserves better than this…..patching up one piece at a time, only to have it worn away in a short time, does NOT WORK. If you all pull together (Supervisors and the City’s Public Safety Committee) I am certain Santa Cruz will be a safer, cleaner and happier community. Google Robert Marabut and you will find a series of sites devoted to explaining his program and I’m sure a phone number to contact him.
Thanks for your interest and service to your community.

We all appreciate your good works.

Sincerely, Janet Fardette

Fardette’s e-mail mentions that “Deborah Elston called one of their recent clients in California”, evidently one of the cities that hired Marbut to justify the ending of what he calls “Street Feeding.” Elston is the founder of Santa Cruz Neighbors, which is a principle member of in Santa Cruz, California. The same that was used to organize an effort to end the meals at Saint James Park in San Jose.

The October 14, 2017 opinion piece in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, “Homeless problem demands action and SCPD is acting” by the new Chief of Police, Andrew G. Mills suggests official support for the implementation of policies promoted by Robert Marbut and those seeking to force the homeless out of sight. Chief Mills, though never calling out Food Not Bombs by name, makes a connection between the well known location of the twice-weekly meal and a serious, mainly food-borne illness by saying, “The U.S. Post Office is a homeless camp and ground zero for the Hepatitis A outbreak.”

In an October 19, 2017 meeting with volunteers, Mills claimed he intentionally did not mention Food Not Bombs, and argued that he meant it was “ground zero” because nearly 400 unhoused people come to the post office each weekend to eat. Chief Mills told the volunteers that city officials were considering introducing an ordinance to regulate the distribution of free meals outside. He suggested that the city might ask Food Not Bombs to change location. He also mentioned the flood of emails he was getting from people posting on attacking him for his opinion piece, demanding he do more to drive the homeless from the city.

Jessica York’s October 16th Sentinel article “Santa Cruz police chief displaces homeless by post office, softens sleeping ban” quotes the county denying Mills claim about the Hepatitis A outbreak.

“In his op-ed, Mills termed the post office encampment as “ground zero” for the Hepatitis A outbreak. Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin stepped back from that statement, saying the city has had a concentration of confirmed patients in the downtown, but that the county has not linked the cases specifically to the post office dwellers.”

Jessica York’s article continues “There really isn’t an epicenter or a ‘big bang,’” Hoppin said. “We have a concentration of cases downtown, but it’s a sanitation issue, mainly. People need clean places to go to the bathroom and eat.” Food Not Bombs is one of the few places downtown where people living on the streets can wash up before eating.

We see Mills espouse Marbut’s theory of enablement again a few sentences later: “The homeless exist in a wasteland of hopelessness, despised by some, enabled by others, but ignored by most of us, who just walk by pretending they don’t exist.” People in Santa Cruz who hate those without housing believe that Mills is referring to Food Not Bombs when he writes “enabled by others” in a piece about those sleeping outside the post office.

Chief Mills joins Marbut’s wrap-around services chorus when he says “The county and city together need to provide wrap-around services such as mental health to work with the homeless. In a focused location, we can encourage all advocates, social services, and support systems to give everything they have to those willing to move forward.”

The theory that ending “street feeding” is part of a solution to “the homeless problem” deflects attention from the primary cause of homelessness, and that is the inability of millions of Americans to find housing they can afford. A study conducted by the real estate company Zillow using census figures and homeless counts for the 25 largest US metropolitan areas shows that a 5 percent average rent hike in Los Angeles County would push 2,000 more people into homelessness. A 5 percent average rent hike in New York City would lead to nearly 3,000 more homeless.

The effort to make it more difficult for people to have access to food (“street feeding” — as if those seeking food were livestock) comes at time when the Trump Administration is cutting food stamps, Meals on Wheels, and other aid to the poorest Americans, while redirecting those tax dollars to military spending and tax breaks for corporations and the top 1%.

Trump’s 2018 budget asks for $192 billion in cuts to food stamps over the next decade. HUD is targeted for upwards of 6.8 billion dollars in cuts. He also intends to cut funding for after-school programs that help provide food to 1.6 million children, and millions of dollars from Meals on Wheels.

Over 13% of Americans currently receive SNAP food stamp benefits, including low income families with children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and those who have recently become unemployed. They receive an average of $4.17 per day or $1.39 per meal.The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that nearly half of all SNAP recipients are children. That’s 20 million kids, 1 in 4 Americans under the age of 18.

The US Congress just passed a huge increase in military spending, exceeding Trump’s proposed “defense” budget request by $18.5 billion. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would spend $696 billion on the military in fiscal year 2018, well beyond President Trump’s requested budget — a budget the White House boosted as a “historic increase in defense spending”. The NDAA received bipartisan support, with 117 House Democrats and all but eight Republicans voting in favor.

These economic policies are sure to contribute to an alarming increase in Americans becoming homeless. In light of this, it is criminal for local officials to consider policies like banning or restricting the sharing of food with the flood of people who are desperate to fill their bellies. It is sickening that local authorities are so eager to drive people who are suffering from a lack of housing out of sight that they will spend more than $100,000 a year to hire a consultant such as Marbut. They could be spending that money on proven solutions and uniting to pressure federal and state officials to redirect those billions of tax dollars that are currently wasted on the world’s most bloated military and tax relief for the rich.

Those on could use their online time to organize a campaign calling on Congress to buy one less aircraft carrier or 20 less F35 jets and demand that funding be directed towards food, housing, education, and healthcare. Local political leaders could take the lead in a national campaign to redirect federal funds from the military toward the real national security produced by ending hunger and poverty—a solution that would not only (in their words) “clean up our streets,” but would end the desperation of millions of their fellow Americans.

So far there isn’t the political will to do what is moral and of great benefit to most Americans; that is where groups like Food Not Bombs come in. We create a public forum with our regular vegan meals with the goal of not only directly alleviating hunger, but of encouraging the community to take nonviolent direct action to end the exploitation and violence of the corporate state.

The Hunger Games are real, the tragic logic of a collapsing empire. Rather than blaming one another for our conditions, we could end this crisis by working together to transform our society so no one is forced to live on the streets or seek food at soup kitchens.

Keith McHenry
Co-founder of the global movement Food Not Bombs and author of Hungry for Peace and The Anarchist Cookbook