Joan Cheever said she will file a lawsuit in federal district court against the City of San Antonio if the ordinance prohibiting distribution of food from a personal vehicle without a permit is not repealed. Cheever was previously ticketed and faced a $2,000 fine for her practice of serving hot meals to the homeless delivered in her personal vehicle, a charge later dropped by City officials in the wake of public sentiment and national publicity supporting her charitable endeavors.
While the ordinance is intended to ensure that food trucks and other mobile food vendors follow health and safety guidelines, the controversy surrounding Cheever’s citation has focused attention on the City’s arbitrary and inflexible policies that govern the feeding the homeless.
City officials want all homeless residents to avail themselves of the shelter and services offered at the Haven for Hope, but the shelter and service organization does not allow individuals who are under the influence of alcohol and drugs to become a resident. Haven does partner with Health Care Services (CHCS) to serve homeless persons who have addiction and/or mental health issues.
“One of the hallmarks of Haven for Hope is that we do not take a ‘bandaid approach’ to homelessness—we address the root causes of homelessness whether it is substance abuse, mental illness, family violence, lack of job skills or some other dynamic,” stated Laura Calderon in an email. “In order to accomplish this, we partner with 92 different agencies, from CHCS to CentroMed to the Alamo Resource Center to Alcoholics Anonymous and many more. Thirty-six of these partners are actually on site here at Haven for Hope.”
But many homeless members with addiction issues, who are either unable or unwilling to kick the habit, remain out of reach.
The city dismissed Cheever’s ticket on July 14, stating in a press release that “the City’s food and mobile vending regulations do not address feeding the homeless,” but Cheever’s fight hasn’t ended.
Cheever said she would give the City 10 days after her ticket was dismissed to repeal the ordinance before she filed a lawsuit. Those 10 days ended Friday. Cheever said she’d wait until Monday before taking action.
Here is the first page of the lawsuit.
Di Galvan, the assistant director of Government and Public Affairs, stated in an email that the City does not plan to repeal the state-mandated food safety and mobile vending regulations, but will look into developing more accommodating policies for people who want to feed the homeless.
“I’m tired of talking and that’s why I – and my lawyers – have a draft complaint that we will file in federal district court in San Antonio if City Council doesn’t repeal the ordinance and quit (simply) talking about this issue,” Cheever said. She wants to see action.
Restaurants around the city use delivery services to provide to-go food for people. Cheever said she wants to know why she is the only one receiving a ticket for distributing food from her personal vehicle.
Soon after Cheever presented the City with a copy of the 18-page lawsuit, still in draft form, the City issued its dismissal.
The draft complaint argues that the citation violated her religious freedom and freedom of speech, and therefore abridged the First Amendment. Many faiths include a mandate for members to help the poor, she said the ordinance is encroaching on the ability to practice that aspect of their faith.
“(I feel) humbled and honored … to represent all of the good Samaritans in this city,” Cheever said.
The City invited Cheever to attend a Homeless Feeding Summit on Tuesday to talk with City staff about homelessness. Cheever said she sees the summit as a method of delay and will not partake in the discussion.
“I don’t want to talk to the City staff,” Cheever said. “The only people I want to talk to are the City Council and City Attorney.”
Galvan stated that the City is using the summit to gather input and encourage discussion about the best practices to feed the homeless.
“The City is in the process of reviewing existing policy and best practices to develop recommendations that support compassionate efforts to provide food to the homeless in a safe manner that does not compromise their health and welfare,” Galvan stated.
Galvan stated City staff will present the information gathered during the summit to City Council in the fall.
The City does not plan to cite Cheever or any individual or organization that are feeding the homeless in a safe manner until the information gathered during the summit is presented to City Council. Cheever continues to feed hungry people in Maverick Park every week – homelessness is not required.
Cheever said Haven for Hope is “bursting at its seams” trying to make room for the homeless. She said San Antonio should follow in the footsteps of San Francisco and take on a more progressive approach toward helping the homeless. The San Francisco nonprofit LavaMae transformed an old city bus into a hygiene bus that provides the homeless mobile showers and toilets.
Cheever said while those who are not homeless can run into a convenience store to use the restroom, the same is not true for the homeless.
“I understand the business community’s concern but I also understand we need to make some accommodations,” she said.
Some of these accommodations, she said, may include unlocking bathroom doors in various parks for the homeless to use and/or establishing new facilities.
“We need to provide some showers so that people can get cleaned up,” she said. “These people have dignity and we need to treat them with dignity.”
Cheever said the The Chow Train, her nonprofit mobile food truck, does not only feed the homeless, it also feeds the working poor.
“I just ask people, ‘Are you hungry?’ And in San Antonio that is a crime,” she said. “And that is why I feel very strongly about repealing the whole ordinance.”
Correction: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect programming at Haven for Hope.
*Featured/top image: Joan Cheever stands on North Alamo Street after serving food to homeless at Maverick Park. Photo by Scott Ball.