color photograph of three people wearing masks standing on an urban sidewalk. the person on the left holds a blue paper sign with black handwritten text that reads "free food no questions." in the top left corner, the prism logo is overlaid. from the left side, a yellow text box emerges with white text that reads "Activists in West Palm Beach charged for feeding houseless people." below it, a black text box with white text emerges from the right side and reads "Florida has the third-largest houseless population in the U.S."
COLUMBUS, OHIO, UNITED STATES - 2021/01/20: 'Free Food, Not Bombs' gives protesters free food and supplies. Activist groups in Columbus came together to form the United Front Against the Far-Right and Capitalist System. (Photo by Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Three activists in West Palm Beach, Florida, are facing criminal charges for sharing food with houseless community members. The activists from Food Not Bombs, a collective that shares vegan or vegetarian food with others, have continued to provide food for the houseless community despite the City Council implementing an ordinance in March requiring a permit for feeding people during large group events. If the permit is violated, the individuals face a $500 fine or 60 days in jail. At least 10 other activists have been cited since the ordinance went into place. So far, they’ve been offered plea deals with reduced consequences, probation, and community service. The Food Not Bombs group has received six paper arrests so far and pleaded not guilty to each.

According to Nicholas Cubides, who was recently charged, a police officer first approached the group while they were feeding about 40 houseless community members. The officer asked for a permit and eventually let the activists go. But later, five officers approached, blocked the road, and four different vehicles “swarmed” the activists asking for identification. They were held for about 30 minutes and given the citations.

“There’s more people that are homeless and don’t have a source of food … and they’re hungry,” said Cindy Phillips, a Food Not Bombs member. “There are more and more homeless people we have noticed over the last several years, and we’re just trying to live day by day by feeding them on Saturdays.”

According to Wisevoter data, Florida has the third-largest homeless population in the country, with 27,487 people experiencing homelessness.

Members of the organization say they reject the permit requirement based on the precedent set by a similar legal situation in nearby Fort Lauderdale that culminated after seven years in 2021. In Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs v. City of Fort Lauderdale, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that feeding the homeless is “expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment.” Fort Lauderdale enacted its food sharing ban in 2014, and in Orlando, a similar food-sharing ban was upheld in 2011. Now, Food Not Bombs West Palm Beach hopes to fight the ordinance in court under Fort Lauderdale’s precedent.

“While there’s always enough money for weapons, there’s never enough money to take care of our citizens in terms of water, food, and shelter,” said Nicholas Cubides, one of the activists who is facing charges. “We try really hard to express solidarity with these people, many of whom are victims of the state through one way or another. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes through a simple lack of resources or just backwards rules and action on behalf of our government.”

In addition to providing meals, Food Not Bombs also shares literature promoting anti-capitalist politics. They have been sharing food with the community for more than 16 years in Nancy Graham Centennial Square. Carly Prinzo, Jacob Robbins, and Cubides were each issued a citation for not complying with the ordinance, which took effect at the end of March and requires those hosting any food-sharing or public expression event involving 25 people or more to obtain a $50 permit. Another stipulation of the ordinance limits permits to two food shares per person, group, or organization per year.

“It’s this idea that in order to run a city or to run for office, there can’t be any ‘blemishes’ on the street,” said Cubides, referring to the city’s reasoning behind the ordinances. “There can’t be anything visible to a person unless they can spin it to be beneficial.”

The three activists were arraigned in county court on Sept. 26. Previously, Prinzo received a written warning on June 10. Other Food Not Bombs groups across the country, including in Houston; Memphis, Tennessee; and Las Vegas, are facing or have recently faced similar legal challenges to their ability to share food with the houseless communities in their areas. 

The trial for the West Palm Beach activists is set to take place in November.

“Once we get this trial out of the way, then we’ll sue the city to get this ordinance off the books,” said Cubides. “Hopefully this sets us up with enough resources [that] they know, for at least another 16 years, [the city is] never going to do something like that again.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...