Joan Cheever, a Good Samaritan, author, lawyer, and chef, has turned the tables on the Republicans and has found an inspiring use for the Texas ‘religious freedom’ law- to defend her efforts to help others. She has made it her mission to give out meals to the homeless, operating a food truck, the Chow Train, in the city of San Antonio, where she serves three-course meals to the needy every Tuesday and lunches on Sunday. When disaster strikes, be it hurricane or tornado, and towns are devastated in the wake of nature’s wrath, she travels around the country to wherever she is needed most and cooks delicious food for those of us could really use a pick-me up.
So it was a very unpleasant surprise for Ms. Cheever to be slapped with a $2000 fine, ostensibly for operating a food truck without a permit, by the San Antonio police. It’s very questionable that the authorities are taking issue with the truck all of a sudden, as she began her mission ten years and hadn’t had any problems before. In response, she’s contesting that the police are violating her religious freedom, defending herself with the same laws that were used to discriminate against LGBT Americans in Indiana, Arkansas, and yes, Texas. The police were not amused: “Ma’am, if you want to pray, go to church” but Ms. Cheever countered that “This is how I pray, when I cook this food and deliver it to the people who are less fortunate.”
Ms. Cheever is holding a vigil in Maverick Park this weekend to protest and raise awareness about the incident, which appears to be part of a growing crackdown by the city of San Antonio on homelessness; but rather than taking any efforts to truly improve the lives of those who have slipped through society’s cracks, the city is trying to drive them away. It’s essentially a crime to be homeless in San Antonio, which has created a bizarre back-and forth battle between the Municipal Court and the SAPD, where the police hand out tickets to the homeless and the courts throw them right out- 8,600 citations over a two month period last year. Benches mysteriously vanish. It doesn’t appear to be enough though, as the police are now targeting charity organizations for encouraging the homeless. A similar operation, Calvary Chapel, was recently kicked out of Travis Park until a councilman intervened.
All of this, unfortunately, seems to be part of growing trend around the country. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the number of cities criminalizing homelessness, usually through laws banning begging and sleeping in public, is rising rapidly while the crisis of homelessness is being shoved under the rug rather than helping the most vulnerable Americans. 12.8% of the nation’s low income housing has been lost since 2001, putting any kind of stepping stone for social mobility even further away from America’s homeless. 1 in 45 American children are homeless- 1.6 million kids. Their lives are hard enough; they don’t deserve to be harassed for sleeping outside or trying to get some food.
On the other hand, the Utah Housing and Community Development, in a study whose results have been echoed by the more compassionate states in our union, found that after adding up the cost of jailings and ER visits, it’s actually just cheaper to give the homeless an apartment. The homeless crisis isn’t difficult to solve- we just have to put our hearts and, yes, a little bit of our funds, in the right place. Ms. Cheever is a shining example of the goodness that people have in their hearts, and it’s very comforting to see the religious freedom laws being used to help others instead of discriminate against them. We applaud Ms. Cheever’s noble mission and urge the City of San Antonio to dismiss this petty citation.
What do you think?
Colin Taylor is the managing editor of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.