On May 1, 2023, Daniel Penny choked Jordan Neely to death in a New York City subway car. Journalists initially framed Penny, a 24-year-old Marine veteran, as a “Good Samaritan” who “tried to intervene” as Neely, a 30-year-old Black man, was “threatening” passengers (NBC New York). Witnesses are unanimous that Neely was unarmed and made no physical contact with anyone. Nobody saw him try to attack anybody else or say that he planned to do so. Jordan Neely, an unhoused entertainer, only yelled that he had no food, was tired of being hungry, and no longer cared if he went to jail or died (CNN).
Jordan Neely was killed for shouting the truth: that it is intolerable and incomprehensible that any of us might slowly starve to death in full public view in the wealthiest city in the richest country in the history of the world (Forbes). Witnessing our neighbors or community members in crisis can be alarming, and we may not always have the tools to intervene. But two things should be obvious when reflecting on this situation. Enacting or permitting others to enact violence against a nonviolent person in crisis can never be justified, whether committed by a vigilante like Penny or a cop. And if someone is yelling that they are so hungry that they wish to die, the only possible humane response is to immediately give that person what money you have or, at the very least, some food. Sickeningly, as an increasingly polarized economy and inaccessible housing market push more and more people onto the streets, sharing food is being made a crime.
• Reach out to a local Food Not Bombs group to prepare and serve food. If there isn’t a local collective, distribute food with a few friends.
• Carry cash to give to people in need.
• Contact the Manhattan District Attorney to support the prosecution of Daniel Penny and not those protesting in the wake of Jordan Neely’s murder.
Dozens of U.S. cities have passed discriminatory and outrageous legislation criminalizing sharing food with unhoused people. Thirty-three such laws were passed in 2014 alone (Vice). Houston threatened residents who fed unhoused people without a permit with a $2,000 fine. Columbia, South Carolina, required getting a $150 permit half a month in advance. Seattle limited outdoor food sharing to city-approved locations (National Coalition for the Homeless).
It’s worth taking a minute to note how strange such laws are. A sandwich I purchase or make for myself is mine to do with as I please. I could eat it, save it for later, or throw it in the garbage. I could give it to my friend, a coworker, or a random passerby because I like the hat they’re wearing. But in cities with anti-homeless legislation, the one thing I’m not allowed to do in public with my sandwich, short of assaulting someone with it, is give it to a hungry person because they’re hungry.
Since houselessness skyrocketed in the United States in the 1980s, cities have instituted anti-homeless legislation prohibiting sharing food, sleeping on sidewalks, and panhandling. Some cities with the most onerous anti-homeless legislation are supposedly liberal bastions like San Francisco. Far from reducing homelessness, such laws create a “never-ending cycle of homelessness,” something “especially true for women and transgender” unhoused people (SFSU). Anti-homeless laws are often the product of Business Improvement Districts and private sector urban renewal initiatives (Berkeley). Displacing, criminalizing, and starving unhoused people doesn’t magically get them into housing. But it does push them out of gentrifying commercial districts for the benefit of business owners.
Public spaces are supposed to be for everyone, places where we can come together with other people when not working, shopping, or in a private home. Laws restricting our enjoyment of public spaces like parks to exclude the poor are a betrayal of this mission. Enjoyment of common areas becomes a privilege for those above a certain income bracket, who are only permitted to use them if they don’t attract the poor. Though these inhumane laws target unhoused people, they are an affront to us all, since it’s not only people sleeping outside who benefit when we share food collectively.
Thirty-eight million people in U.S. households lack access to sufficient food, not all of whom are unhoused (IHPL). And it’s not only food-insecure people who benefit from free, shared meals. They’re an opportunity for people of different class backgrounds to come together through preparing or eating food together in a space not mediated by the market. In this way, giving away food in a park isn’t just a legitimate use of public space. It’s perhaps the perfect use of public space. That’s because, in the words of sociologist Jacek Tittenbrun:
“Public spaces are the arenas of the collective, common life that is vital to a thriving society. They are places where citizens can exercise their civic freedoms. In public spaces we are all equal, which underlines their democratic nature. Private control and stratification are thus inimical to the very heart of democratic principle. Democracy cannot survive when civil rights are being subordinated to property rights, citizenship to consumerism” (The Conversation).
Bans on feeding unhoused people betray the public and, according to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Constitution (Global Citizen). The best way to resist is to take direct action to ensure that all of our neighbors are fed. Food Not Bombs chapters around the world feed unhoused people with food that would otherwise be discarded. “Food Not Bombs brings community every week; people stumble upon us and we share food — a common struggle and joy. We are not about charity, we are about solidarity within our community,” says one volunteer (Loyola Phoenix). You can find a local group here. But this doesn’t have to be done through an organization at all. There’s good advice on how to support unhoused people here, starting with open communication and letting unhoused people lead.
There’s a persistent myth that unhoused people fundamentally differ from the rest of us. Some contend that unlike most of us, who enjoy having our basic needs met more than we dislike going to work, unhoused people are so lazy that they prefer dying of exposure to lifting a finger. Others will tell you that all unhoused people are unhoused only because they experienced severe mental illnesses first. It’s true that there’s a severe lack of mental health care in the United States and that many people fall through the cracks. But it’s also true that many people end up unhoused through sheer bad luck. Few experiences are more likely to create psychological distress than wasting away surrounded by wealth, only to be met with indifference, fear, or, in the case of Jordan Neely, lethal violence. We must support unhoused people because most of us are only a few misfortunes away from losing secure housing ourselves, and our neighbors’ dignity and right to thrive do not depend on them having enough money to pay a security deposit.
• Cities across the United States criminalize giving food to unhoused people.
• These laws degrade public space and community while worsening poverty and polarization.
• We can take direct action by feeding our neighbors collectively.