Homeless advocates say a bill being considered by St. Louis aldermen would bar them from helping people in need.
The measure would require a vendor’s license to distribute food, blankets or other goods on city sidewalks or parks — even if those items are being given away. It would also make it illegal to give anything away between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
New Life Evangelistic Center founder Rev. Larry Rice called a news conference Wednesday to denounce the bill.
“This would make it illegal to feed the hungry, to find somebody out on the streets at night that’s cold and offer them a blanket or a warm place to stay,” said Rice, “I find it personally horrifying.”
7th Ward Alderman Jack Coatar is the bill’s sponsor. He did not immediately respond to messages requesting comment, but Coatar previously confirmed on Twitter that the measure is intended to regulate the distribution of goods to the homeless.
— Jack Coatar (@jcoatar) May 26, 2016
The measure has to be approved by the streets committee before it would be put to a vote by the full board of aldermen. The board goes on summer break Friday and isn’t currently scheduled to meet again until September. (Scroll down to see the bill in its entirety.)
“We’ve already seen the police become very aggressive at this time, even threatening to cite people if they continue to distribute items to help those in need. This gives police a vehicle now to go on and ticket them, go on and maybe arrest them,” Rice said.
Mo Costello of St. Louis Winter Outreach told St. Louis Public Radio last week that police had warned her to stop feeding the homeless or she would receive a citation. It appears the citation would be for a health code violation, although the specific statute is unknown.
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Spokeswoman Leah Freeman responded to questions about the warnings by saying “Officers focus on quality of life offenses in all parts of the city all year round.” Freeman directed questions about the statute to the health commissioner.
In late May Mayor Francis Slay told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that police would start enforcing more low-level “quality of life” offenses downtown, including “loud noise, speeding motorcycles, public urination and littering.”
Both Rev. Rice and St. Louis Winter Outreach volunteer Laura Shields said Wednesday that they would continue distributing items to the homeless even if the bill becomes law.
“If a person is on the street and I have two sandwiches why won’t I give them one? Its decency and common sense and I will continue to do that,” Shields said.
“We’re going to continue to do what Christ has told us to do, and yes, I’ll be locked up if I have to,” Rice said, adding that he would pursue a lawsuit if it becomes law.
“If this bill passes there’s going to be legal action, not only on the part of the ACLU but we’re going to have to get our team of attorneys to address this,” Rice said. “This is an anti-Good Samaritan bill and anybody that has any belief in their heart at all and they’re more than just a secular humanist but believe in the mandates of scripture are going to fight this with everything they’ve got.”
New Life is currently pursuing legal options to continue operating as a homeless shelter after a city board ruled the shelter was a detriment to the neighborhood in December 2014.
In the Bible the Good Samaritan is a man who helped someone who was beaten, robbed and left for dead. It’s a parable Jesus used to teach his followers compassion.
St. Louis aldermen recently passed a so-called Good Samaritan bill, which protects people from drug possession charges if they call 911 for someone who has overdosed.
Rice held his press conference Wednesday in a back room of his shelter recently designated as a space women and children can stay during the day.
Rosemary Porter was one of about 30 or 40 women or children in the room during the conference. She said she’s benefited from people giving her food on the street.
“Someone handed me a bottle of water, and they handed me a sandwich. And you know what, I needed it,” Porter said, adding that she would support licensing people who help the homeless as long as they aren’t required to pay for the license.
“I really want to know is it from a safe place that I’m getting this from,” Porter said. “But I don’t think being charged for it like a vendor license and that kind of thing should be regulated that way.”
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.