When asking the question “what is the purpose of government,” you will receive a variety of answers, depending on the political ideology of the person you ask. Anything from “nothing” to “defending the country” to “building roads” to “providing for a certain minimum standard of living.”
Apparently the City of Birmingham, Alabama has different standards.
Birmingham city council passed an anti-small business food truck ordinance last year which favors brick-and-mortar restaurants and punishes the growing market of mobile vendors such as Birmingham’s Melt and Spoonfed Grill. They are now trying to extend these onerous regulations to the good men and women who bring truck loads of sandwiches and other food to downtown Birmingham’s homeless population.
Don Williams of Bridge Builders Ministries was told by Birmingham Police last week that the ordinance applied to him, and he would no longer be able to distribute food to the homeless in Birmingham unless he applies for street vendor and health permits. These permits can cost hundreds of dollars, not to mention the miles of red tape to obtain.
While some missions are able to provide meals 7 days a week, many are not able to feed the homeless on weekends, which is where Mr. Williams sought to step in.
Bridge Builders works with 17 churches in the community to serve three meals a week to the city’s homeless population. The organization has been providing the service for the past 15 years, and last Thursday was the first time they’d been ordered to stop by the city. I spoke with Mr. Williams Monday morning to get his side of the story.
“It was like a meth bust, there were so many [police] there. They ordered us to vacate and checked all the homeless for warrants [for arrest].”
Mr. Williams is now seeking a way to continue the ministry through legitimate channels.
“They told us that in order to continue we’d need to get a permit from the city, but the city of Birmingham doesn’t even know how to issue a permit to give food away.”
Until they are able to get a permit from the city, Bridge Builders will be serving the homeless out of the Church of the Reconciler’s fellowship hall.
Mr. Williams wasn’t the only one who earned pushback from the city last week. According to an the local ABC affiliate, Rick Wood of the Lord’s House of Prayer was also stopped last week for handing out sandwiches under the 20/59 overpass. The new food truck ordinance was also cited as the reason for the police department’s shutdown of the ministry.
Birmingham’s homeless population is above average for a city its size. There are over 3,000 homeless men and women on the streets of Birmingham, according to Pastor Matt Lacey at Church of the Reconciler. The vast majority are African-Americans, and many of them are veterans. Is this how the Birmingham city council and police department would thank them for their service?
“Organizations that serve the homeless are in a constant dance with the city. Most of the time we are able to work together to best serve the community, and we [Church of the Reconciler] will continue to do that” Pastor Lacey told ACMA Monday morning.
Birmingham officials have yet to return any requests for comment.
Birmingham isn’t the first place this has happened, a community in the San Francisco area and Columbia, SC have also begun persecuting groups that would provide food to the homeless in those cities as well.
No matter your politics or religious beliefs, we can all agree that taking the food out of the mouths of the hungry is not the role of government in any circumstance. Birmingham city officials ought to be ashamed, and we should be the ones holding them accountable for it.
Government has a bad habit of forgetting about the unintended consequences of its laws. As libertarians, it often falls to us to point out that they need to get out of the way so private citizens can strengthen their communities and help the needy.
A version of this story was originally published by Alabama Citizens for Media Accountability, A Birmingham, AL based non-profit. ACMA’s Executive Director, Elizabeth BeShears, is also a writer and associate editor for TOL.