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Houston ticketed 90 people for feeding the homeless, but no jury will convict them

The city passed a law making it illegal to feed the homeless on public property in 2012.

Houston ticketed 90 people for feeding the homeless, but no jury will convict them
Volunteers at Food Not Bombs feed the homeless and needy. Via Ahmed Haque/Flickr

In a move that probably seems unconscionable to a lot of people, the city of Houston, Texas, made it illegal to feed more than 5 homeless people at a time without the property owner’s permission which includes public spaces. Those who violate the law can be fined $500.

The law was passed in 2012 but wasn’t enforced until 2023, when Benjamin Franklin, a 15-year volunteer with Food Not Bombs, was cited for distributing food to the homeless. Food Not Bombs is an all-volunteer global movement sharing free vegan meals as a protest against war and poverty. 

“In the decade since the city passed this unjust ordinance [Charitable Feeding Ordinance], they’ve never demonstrated any reason or benefit for having it,” Franklin says on the Houston Food Not Bombs website.“My understanding of the law tells me this ordinance is unlawful. My personal beliefs tell me it is immoral and unjust.”


Since Franklin was cited, over 90 tickets have been handed out to individuals associated with Food Not Bombs for handing out food to the homeless.

“Criminalizing the act of charity is a bad law and should never have been passed or enforced,” attorney Paul Kubosh, representing some of the volunteers in court, told the Houston Chronicle.

Phillip Picone, who was ticketed by the city but found not guilty in late July 2023, has countersued Houston, claiming that the law violates his religious freedom.  “If you were to look in the Catholic Bible, or any Bible, you’d see many references to feeding the hungry and feeding the poor,” Picone’s attorney, Randall Kallinen, told USA Today. 

The silver lining in the story about the state cracking down on people trying to help society’s most vulnerable is that none of the 90 ticketed people have been convicted. The state has had a hard time finding jurors who will convict someone of feeding the homeless.

A recent report by the Houston Chronicle noted that when a pool of 15 potential jurors was questioned, not one of them said they were unbiased in the case. Many said that even if the defendant, Elisa Meadows, were found guilty, they wouldn’t issue the $500 fine. 

Attorney Clay Conrad, who’s written a book on jury nullification, says it’s not uncommon for juries to take the law into their own hands and refuse to prosecute someone if they violate a law they believe is unjust. 


“A lot of times, a jury will nullify the law while thinking they followed it,” Conrad toldthe Houston Chronicle. “Because they’re interpreting the facts and the law in a way to get to a verdict that they feel they can be proud of,” he said. “At the end of the day, the jury has to decide: Is this guy a criminal, or is he a good neighbor? I could see the jury saying, 'This guy is a good neighbor.'”

On Wednesday, Febryar 14, a federal judge ordered Houston to stop temporarily ticketing Food Not Bombs for handing out food to the homeless. "The judge said that we are ultimately likely to prove that we have a First Amendment right to be here on city property right across from City Hall," said Dustin Rynders, an attorney with Texas Civil Rights Project ,who represented the group, saidaccording to ABC 13. "It's a huge win."

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