San Antonio, Texas, Chef Fights City Fine to Feed the Homeless

STEFANIE TUDER
San Antonio, Texas, Chef Fights City Fine to Feed the Homeless (ABC News)

Joan Cheever has been serving free food to the homeless of San Antonio, Texas, every Tuesday for the past six years. She prepares the food in The Chowtrain, her commercially licensed food truck, transfers it to catering equipment approved by the health department and drives it in her personal truck, for space reasons, to four locations in the city.

Over the years, she has encountered several police officers, who have been friendly and grown used to seeing Cheever on her route as she offers them a meal if they’d like.

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Until April 7, that is.

“I was serving a hot meal to the homeless downtown and four bicycle police officers came up, like they have many times over the six years, but that night they didn’t have a happy face on,” Cheever told ABC News. “I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ and they said, ‘You.’”

After a conversation with the cops, Cheever was issued a ticket for not serving the food out of her licensed vehicle.

“I said, ‘You can’t give me a warning?’ And they said, ‘No, we’re going to write you a ticket. We have our orders,’” she said.

Cheever was cited for “failing to adhere to long-standing regulations that are in place to ensure public health and safety,” according to the city of San Antonio.

“The citation was issued for serving food from a personal vehicle, not the mobile food truck that Ms. Cheever is permitted to operate,” city spokeswoman Di Galvan told ABC News. Mobile food establishment permits are not transferable from one vehicle to another. The San Antonio Police Department is working with the City’s Center City Development & Operations, Metropolitan Health and Human Services departments to encourage everyone who wants to assist the homeless population to do so in a legal, safe and efficient manner.

“Haven for Hope is the City's designated service provider for the homeless population and is set up to accept private donations and accommodate volunteers.”

Since that night, Cheever has obtained a lawyer and refused to pay the $2,000 fine. She has even successfully served food on the two Tuesdays since then, in the same manner she always has.

“I came back to the park the following Tuesday and was met with 100 people who had candles and signs [of support],” Cheever said. “This isn’t only about The Chowtrain. It’s about every nonprofit and every person who wants to do a good thing, but are intimidated by the $2,000 fine and possible arrest. So we’re just going to keep rolling on.”

Cheever’s fine is the latest in a trend of cities cracking down on unpermitted people trying to feed the homeless. Last year, a 90-year-old man was warned against feeding the homeless in Florida. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 31 cities nationwide have taken action “to restrict or ban the act of food-sharing.”

The San Antonio City Council’s Quality of Life committee met Tuesday to discuss the situation, and, according to the San Antonio Express News, is fine with Cheever’s serving food from her food truck or serving only packaged food from her personal vehicle in order to be in compliance with food safety standards, which doesn't sit well with Cheever.

Her meals normally consist of fresh vegetable soup, a main such as lamb meatballs or coq au vin and a dessert.

“I went to culinary school and got my food safety certification,” she said. “We’re careful with the food and so this is really hard to read that the police chief and the health department said that I was a danger to the community and they’re advocating passing out granola bars versus fresh vegetables.

“I think it’s insulting and not compassionate and the policy needs to be changed. I’m not going to settle and I’m not going to pay the fine and I’m not going to stop. They can come out every Tuesday and write me up a ticket and we’ll just start collecting them.”