Now that the crime rate has declined in Houston, the cops there apparently don’t have enough to do.
In fact, it’s quiet enough in that dusty Texas town that their big bust last week was nailing a guy for a crime so heinous the statute against it has been on the books since 1942:
You CANNOT “molest a garbage can” in Houston, Texas.
That’s right. Scavenge through a big bin and you’re going down, brother. Well, you’re at least going to get a ticket. And last Thursday night that’s exactly what happened to James Kelly. The hungry, homeless Navy vet was ticketed by Houston PD for wanton disregard of the garbage molesting law after he was found rummaging through a trash bin in search of food, rumored to be a donut.
Dear God, mother, dial 911 and hide the kids in the bathroom!
Before you ask, “are you kidding me?” know that Ray Hunt, the president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, assured the public that this really is not as heartless as it looks. From The Houston Chronicle:
“I know on the face of it, it sounds very cruel,” the union leader said, stressing that most police officers would not cite someone for simply taking food from a dumpster.
“It’s not officers being inhumane,” Hunt said. “It’s police officers responding to citizens’ complaints about someone removing garbage from their garbage can, and leaving it on the ground. It’s creating a mess.”
OH…it’s the mess, not the molesting.
But I get it; we’ve all seen the havoc rowdy, sometimes mentally ill, homeless can wreak on an encampment or park. It’s a valid issue and one every city has to wrangle in search of the most compassionate and efficient way to deal with the problem. But homelessness and hunger either bring out the Good Samaritan in a person or sends them into a snit. Given the longevity of this garbage molesting statute, it would seem the city of Houston has been in a snit about their hungry homeless for a good long while.
Records show the statute existed in its original form from 1942 to 1981; after that it went through four different amendments to adjust for the times: 1988 brought verbiage to include recycling bins, in 1995 they got busy writing various penalties for those “garbage molesters,” and it 2002 they expanded the statue to include ALL garbage bins in the city, not just the ones city workers handled, intended to corral the indiscriminate dumpster diving of the homeless population.
James Kelly, it turns out, didn’t know about the statute. He was just hungry. But, in a bizarre twist, it turns out it is not only a crime to dig for food in a garbage bin in Houston, it’s also a crime to feed a homeless person in Houston.
Now, come on, Ray Hunt, you gonna try to tell me that ain’t inhumane?
From The Huffington Post:
Last year, the Houston City Council ruled that people can’t publicly feed the homeless without the consent of property owners and the city.
The law poses risks for both those living on the streets and activists trying to feed those in need. The maximum penalty for people who violate the law is a misdemeanor charge and a $500 fine, a penalty many nonprofits simply can’t afford, the Daily Caller reported.
Despite the risks, many homeless advocates say they are willing to take their chances in order to keep people from going hungry.
“I have never been one to break the law,” Amber Rodriguez, executive director of Noah’s Kitchen in Houston, told the Daily Caller. “But if I see people who need food, I am going to feed them.”
But given that not every person is as admirable a scofflaw as Amber, the homeless are getting it both coming and going: no one can legally feed them, but if they get caught scavenging through a bin for a crust of bread and such, they’re going down. Yeah… that’s “inhumane.”
James Kelly is reportedly from Tennessee and a nine-year Navy vet; he says he spent “three years as a Navy hospital corpsman attached to a Marine Corps rifle company in Camp Pendleton, Calif., and six more years in the fleet based in San Diego.” Now that he’s down on his luck and having trouble getting the help he needs at the Veteran’s Administration (he doesn’t have the necessary identification), regret comes into the picture:
Kelly said he left the service in about 1990 as a Petty Officer Second Class. He was almost halfway to receiving a full 20-year pension.
“I kick myself in the posterior for ever getting out. If I had known what I know now, I would have stayed in and gotten my retirement,” he said. [Source]
Despite his run-in with the law, Kelly’s been touched by the outpouring of concern for his plight. Activists have stepped up to help, including the ACLU; Randall Kallinen, a Houston attorney who’s fought against the “anti-feeding” ordinance, has taken the case. Kallinen acknowledged that Kelly got his ticket based on the garbage law not the feeding ordinance, but says the two laws overlap:
“It’s not a part of that ordinance,” the civil rights attorney said. “However, it’s the same reasoning – to push the homeless people out of the downtown business district.”
Kallinen said he considers the Houston garbage scavenging ordinance unconstitutional, citing a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case.
“These laws all favor the downtown central business district,” said Kallinen. “There is a history of laws – the anti-food-sharing law, the civility ordinances which prevent sleeping on sidewalks. Basically, it prohibits the behavior of what the homeless would do. Although it’s a different law, the driving force behind it is the same.” [Source]
Which makes clear the problem: what to do with the homeless? It’s a conundrum that’s stymied many a city and finding a workable solution requires the collaboration of a wide range of groups and agencies: the Veterans Administration, city councils, law enforcement, charities, shelters, mental health agencies, etc. But outlawing feeding the homeless and making it a crime for them to find what they can in a dumpster is a one-two punch that’s as heartless as homelessness itself.
Now that attention is being drawn to the situation, Houston will hopefully find a more compassionate solution, and James Kelly will settle his legal problems and find his way to California, where he says he’s headed to see his daughter. It might take awhile on both count… but odds are it will happen… with the helping hands of those in Houston who truly do understand what’s “humane.”