When Feeding The Homeless Runs Afoul Of The Law

When Feeding The Homeless Runs Afoul Of The Law

1:50pm Jun 15, 2015
Cheever stands with Mundo, one of her regular homeless clients.
Cheever stands with Mundo, one of her regular homeless clients.
David Martin Davies / TPR
  • Cheever stands with Mundo, one of her regular homeless clients.

    Cheever stands with Mundo, one of her regular homeless clients.

    David Martin Davies / TPR

  • Joan Cheever, founder of the non-profit Food Train program, signs a citation for feeding the homeless without a proper permit last month in Maverick Park, San Antonio.

    Joan Cheever, founder of the non-profit Food Train program, signs a citation for feeding the homeless without a proper permit last month in Maverick Park, San Antonio.

    David Martin Davies / TPR

Every Tuesday night, Joan Cheever hits the streets of San Antonio to feed the homeless. In a decade, she's rarely missed a night. But on a recent, windy Tuesday, something new happens.

The police show up.

"He says we have to have a permit," Cheever says. "We have a permit. We are a licensed nonprofit food truck."

Cheever runs a nonprofit called the Chow Train. Her food truck is licensed by the city. On this night, she has loaded the back of a pickup with catering equipment and hot meals and driven to San Antonio's Maverick Park, near a noisy downtown highway.

Officer Mike Marrota asks to see her permit.

Documents are produced, but there's a problem: The permit is for the food truck, not her pickup. Cheever argues that the food truck, where she cooks the meals, is too big to drive down the alleyways she often navigates in search of the homeless.

"I tell you guys and the mayor, that we have a legal right to do this," Cheever says to Marrota.

Marrota asks, "Legal right based on what?"

The Freedom of Religion Restoration Act, Cheever tells him, or RFRA, a federal law which protects free exercise of religion.

The officer isn't buying it. He writes her a ticket, with a fine of up to $2,000, making clear that San Antonio tickets even good Samaritans if they don't comply with the letter of the law.

The National Coalition for the Homeless says upwards of 30 cities have some kind of ban on distributing free food for the homeless. Many, including San Antonio, want to consolidate services for the homeless in one location — often, away from tourists.

Does invoking RFRA give Cheever and other good Samaritans license to ignore the law?

"That is not, actually, an easy question to answer," says Michael Ariens, law professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. "RFRA applies when the government of any type substantially burdens an individual's free exercise of religion."

The key phrase is "substantially burdens," Ariens says.

"RFRA doesn't allow any do-gooder to simply to do whatever they wish — to make a law onto themselves without interference from local or state government," he says.

Cheever complains that San Antonio has joined other cities in turning feeding the homeless into a crime.

On the next Tuesday night, Cheever is back in Maverick Park, risking another ticket. She could even be arrested.

But this time there are no police. Cheever and her Chow Train volunteers are greeted by dozens of supporters and homeless people.

"It warms my heart, but it doesn't surprise me, because the community is behind me and they are behind every other nonprofit that does what I do," she says.

In late June, Cheever says, she will challenge the ticket in court.

Copyright 2015 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.tpr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A number of U.S. cities have started restricting food handouts to the homeless. In Texas, one good Samaritan is fighting to keep delivering meals to the needy of San Antonio, and as Texas Public Radio's David Martin Davies reports, she argues this is her religious right.

DAVID MARTIN DAVIES, BYLINE: Every Tuesday night, Joan Cheever hits the streets of San Antonio to feed the homeless. In a decade, she's rarely missed a night, but on a recent windy Tuesday, something new happened. The police showed up.

JOAN CHEEVER: He said we have to have a permit. We have a permit. We're a licensed, nonprofit food truck. All of this food came out...

MIKE MARROTA: You were licensed by who?

CHEEVER: The city of San Antonio.

DAVIES: Cheever has a licensed food truck. She runs a nonprofit called the Chow Train. On this night, she's loaded the back of a pickup with catering equipment and hot meals. She's at San Antonio's Maverick Park near a noisy downtown highway.

MARROTA: So then you have your permit?

CHEEVER: Yeah, we have a permit.

MARROTA: OK, well...

DAVIES: Documents are produced, but there's a problem. They're for the food truck, not her pickup. Cheever argues the food truck where she cooks the meals is too big to drive down the alleyways she often navigates in search of the homeless.

CHEEVER: This comes up and I tell you guys and the mayor that we have a legal right to do this. The caterers...

MARROTA: Legal right based on what though?

CHEEVER: Based on the Texas Freedom Reformation - Restoration Act.

DAVIES: Cheever is claiming RFRA - the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that protects free exercise of religion. The officer isn't buying it. He writes her a ticket. The fine could reach $2,000.

CHEEVER: So anybody - any good Samaritan that offers food for people that are in need or are homeless...

MARROTA: That's great. You are a good Samaritan.

CHEEVER: No, but...

MARROTA: That's very nice that you're doing that. However...

CHEEVER: But good Samaritans get tickets in San Antonio.

MARROTA: Yes.

DAVIES: But does invoking RFRA give you license to ignore the law?

MICHAEL ARIENS: That is not, actually, an easy question to answer.

DAVIES: Michael Ariens teaches law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.

ARIENS: RFRA applies when the government of any type substantially burdens an individual's free exercise of religion.

DAVIES: The key phrase is substantially burdens.

ARIENS: RFRA does not allow any do-gooder simply to do whatever they wish - to make a law unto themselves without interference from local or state government.

DAVIES: So is the city of San Antonio substantially burdening Cheever by ordering her to operate only from a food truck? Cheever complains that San Antonio has joined other cities turning feeding the homeless into a crime. The National Coalition for the Homeless says upwards of 30 cities have some kind of ban on distributing free food for the homeless. Many, including San Antonio, want to consolidate services for the homeless in one location, often away from tourists.

CHEEVER: You all come out of the street so you don't get hit.

DAVIES: It's the Tuesday night after the ticketing and Cheever is back. She's risking another ticket. She could even be arrested, but this time, there are no police. Cheever and her Chow Train volunteers are greeted by dozens of supporters and homeless people.

CHEEVER: It warms my heart, but it doesn't surprise me because the community's behind me and they're behind every other nonprofit that does what I do and there are a lot of them.

DAVIES: Cheever has community support, but is the law on her side? She's about to find out. In late June, Cheever challenges the ticket in court. For NPR News, I'm David Martin Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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