By Takane Shoji
New York, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia — winters on the streets are cold; but this winter, it’s especially cold. Though the number of homeless people across the country has been on the decline, more than 600,000 people are still out on the streets. To put the figure in perspective, the population of Boston is a little over 630,000. The much-needed economic recovery is steadily coming along yet nowhere close to diverting resources for an expansive social welfare. On the contrary, major cities in the US have been taking away what is perhaps the only warmth homeless people have — food service on the streets.
Legislations banning the public provision of food services to the homeless have pervaded the country in the past five years and just this past December, another major one — Los Angeles — was to join. Why? States have given a myriad of answers, but here’s one, by the Bloomberg administration in NYC – a city with the largest number of people on the streets.
“In conjunction with a mayoral task force and the Health Department, the Department of Homeless Services recently started enforcing new nutritional rules for food served at city shelters. Since DHS can’t assess the nutritional content of donated food, shelters have to turn away good Samaritans.”
Needless to say, the administration’s “concern for nutrition” only serves to mask the real drive for the ban, which also happens to be the bottom line for all the states that have pursued similar legislations. The public food service attracts homeless people, and the residents nearby are often “uncomfortable,” with their presence. An LA resident captures such a sentiment: “If you give out free food on the street, you get hundreds of people beginning to squat. We have a neighborhood which now seems like a mental ward.” 
Members of the City Council in LA have suggested moving the programs indoors. While the idea might strike as a reasonable compromise, the approach fails to address the legislation’s very aim – driving the homeless out of downtown areas. First, who is going to provide the space for the proposed indoor food drive? Remember, the objective of the food service is to feed. Secondly, even if food service were to be moved indoors, the fact remains that people still do not have a home. Unless the food program is integrated into a shelter, homeless people will still be on the streets. Lastly, one must turn to the psychological implications of the proposal. Having spent much time in isolation, the streets have been their only home, and there is a particular sense of security in receiving food right at the doorstep of this “home.” Should the service be moved to an unfamiliar building, this comfort may be violated, deterring them from receiving the service.
That said, it merits considering the LA resident’s rationale in making her statement. Her concerns of homeless people “squatting” in the neighborhood is closely intertwined with the fear of crimes often seen as going hand in hand with homelessness. Indeed, homelessness correlates with crimes, namely “nuisance offenses,” such as panhandling or turnstile jumping in the subway. A researcher in psychology, Sean Fischer notes, "Criminal activity isn't a staple characteristic of these people…It may be more accurate to think of them as people struggling to get by." His statement is not to discount, or exempt the homeless people from crime, though it sheds light upon a deeper structural question – “If cities take away the service for which many homeless struggle – even by resorting to criminal activity – what good will it do to prevent crimes?”
There is some validity in the logic driving the food service ban legislations. However, there has been far too little consideration of addressing the structural issue of getting people off the streets. As the legislation stands, it is merely a Band-Aid on a severe wound – and one that doesn’t stick.
 Bill Chappel, “Number Of Homeless Declines Again, But Gains Aren't Universal,” NPR, Nov. 21, 2013, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/11/21/246589487/number-of-homeless-declines-again-but-gains-arent-universal.
 Jess Stier, “No Kugel for you,” New York Post, Mar. 19, 2012, http://nypost.com/2012/03/19/no-kugel-for-you/
 Adam Nagourney, “As Homeless Line Up for Food, Los Angeles Weighs Restrictions,” New York Times, Nov. 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/us/as-homeless-line-up-for-food-los-angeles-weighs-restrictions.html?_r=0
 Price M, “New insights on homelessness and violence,” American Psychological Association, Dec. 2009, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/12/violence.aspx
Photo Credit: Flickr user SamPac