According to a new report making headlines this week, 21 American cities have passed laws designed to stop residents from sharing food with homeless people since 2013. The finding, which comes from the National Coalition for the Homeless, highlights an increasingly popular belief that hunger motivates troubled individuals to make lifestyle changes. Food aid, in this view, keeps the homeless complacent. In an interview with NPR, one consultant argued that “Street feeding is one of the worst things to do… it’s very unproductive, very enabling, and it keeps people out of recovery programs.” Many city officials quoted in the report have extended this line of thinking to community soup kitchens and food pantries as well. They see those offerings as well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided attempts to help. One, a police captain from Cincinnati, remarked “If you want the bears to go away, don’t feed the bears.” Research shows this isn’t the case, and these attitudes may actually harm people experiencing homelessness.

Social scientists have amassed a great deal of knowledge about the connection between homelessness and hunger. Over and over, they’ve shown that people with stable food access tend to fare better in other aspects of life.
More importantly, these people aren’t animals and homelessness is no mere matter of individual laziness or poor choice. A number of well known structural factors cause and sustain homelessness, including social stigma, poor access to affordable housing, limited employment opportunities, mental health factors, and physical disabilities.

For more on homelessness, check out TROT posts on last year’s polar vortex and this year’s VMAs.