Today, a 78-year-old grandmother sued Bullhead City after officials arrested her, prosecuted her, and threatened to jail her, for feeding homeless people in a park in March. Norma Thornton has joined forces with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file the federal lawsuit, which seeks to strike down Bullhead City’s law criminalizing feeding the needy in city parks.
For decades, Norma has had a passion for helping people experiencing homelessness. She has lived in various cities throughout that time, and in each new city she has befriended homeless people, cooked them homemade meals, helped with cleaning their laundry, helped connect them with needed services, and much more.
Norma continued to serve the homeless community when she moved to Bullhead City. In March 2022, Norma arrived at the same spot in Community Park where she had always served food to the homeless. After she finished giving out meals and ensuring everything was cleaned up, a police officer stopped Norma, told her she was breaking the law, arrested her and put her in the back of his car.
“I’m not a rulebreaker and I never thought helping people in need in my community would get me into legal trouble,” Norma said. “I see many of these people as my friends and I want to do everything in my power to help them out.”
Bullhead City’s law is of recent vintage; passed in 2021, it was designed to push the homeless out of the city park and out of public sight. But there are no encampments in the park and nobody sleeps in the park. People experiencing homelessness simply go to the park during the hottest part of the day to find some shade.
The law demands a permit for the sharing of prepared food in public parks as part of a “non-social gathering” motivated by “charitable purposes.” But permits are difficult to obtain and applicants may only obtain a permit to feed people once per month. Because the law applies only to sharing food for a “charitable purpose,” it means that Norma can throw a pizza party in Community Park for 50 of her friends without limitation. But once she offers food for charity, she runs afoul of the ordinance. Each violation of the law is punishable with a fine of up to $1,431, 120 days in jail and 24 months of probation.
“The city has criminalized kindness,” said IJ Attorney Diana Simpson. “People have a right to feed those in need and have been doing so for the entirety of human history. People have a fundamental right to engage in charity, which is protected by the Constitution. There is absolutely no valid reason for Bullhead City to crack down on Norma’s act of compassion.”
Norma decided to use Community Park as her venue for feeding the homeless because she noticed a fair number of homeless people sleep in the desert nearby; the closest homeless shelter is 6.5 miles away in an isolated part of town, and is hard to get to by bus. Furthermore, the shelter only serves lunch, except for those staying overnight, but overnight spots are usually full because the shelter only has 46 beds.
“Norma saw a way to provide a private solution to a major issue in her community, and she must not be punished for helping these people,” said IJ Attorney Suranjan Sen. “How to solve homelessness is a difficult question with various answers, but Bullhead City’s law certainly isn’t the right one. Cities should encourage private solutions to homelessness, not prevent these efforts.”
IJ has won lawsuits throughout the country that have helped ensure people can use their private property to help the homeless, including ending a law in Clarkston, Washington, that threatened to shut down a free pantry on private property and defeating a zoning restriction that would have forced a homeless shelter to shut down in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina.