Is This Any Way to Help the Homeless?

Mary Baker and Ruth Neikirk love to cook. What’s more, they love to cook for poor people. They do it frequently, preparing meals at home and bringing them to their church in Virginia.

“I love it,” Mary says. “I can take a little bit of something, like a soup bone? And I can make a whooole pot of something. Tastes good. With some cornbread you got ‘em a meal!”

The people they cook for love it too. But there’s a problem. It was “criminal activity.” The Fairfax County health department points out that — horrors — Mary and Ruth are actually preparing food and serving it to people! Without a license!

That’s not safe, said the health department. What if there’s food poisoning? Hundreds of pages of regulation say that if you want to serve food to the public, you need a food-manager certificate, a ware-washing machine (with internal baffles), drain-boards, ventilation-hood systems, a sink with at least three compartments, as well as a hand-washing sink, can openers with removable parts, and much more, for page after page.

The county health department wasn’t being capricious. It was just enforcing its rules. There had been a complaint. No one had gotten sick, but an “advocate for the homeless” noticed that church kitchens, which appeared sparkling clean to my ABC team, didn’t meet “code.”

“You’ve got to be kidding, give us a break,” the Rev. Judy Fender told us. “We can fix a nice meal here, but we can’t serve it!”

The health department said it was just looking out for the homeless. But did the officials ever think about where street people eat when they don’t eat at these churches?

“They’ve never stopped me from eating out of a dumpster or a trash can,” says James, an astute homeless man who understands Henry Hazlitt’s “economics in one lesson,” namely, look for the secondary results of government policy. The government can close down the church kitchens, but that’ll only send the poor to the garbage cans. Is that better?

“Some of them take their jobs just a little too seriously,” said James. “They got nothing better to do than sit around and write legislation.”

James has put his finger on another important point: the perverse incentives facing bureaucrats, who get no credit if they never meddle in our peaceful activities.

An old, near-toothless man agreed with James. “I thought they was crazy. I mean, they’re [the church people] helping people, and they’re trying to stop it.”

Rev. Fender added, “They’ve set up a situation that you have to have a $40,000 kitchen to feed someone who’s going to get their food from questionable sources at best.”

Rev. Kathleen Chesson said her First Christian Church would not obey the rules. “Our agenda is to feed the hungry. We’re going to feed the hungry. That’s it.”

Before I could confront the county officials about this ridiculous situation, the bad publicity had already prompted a reconsideration. “I got up and saw my morning newspaper and was horrified,” said Gerry Connolly, who heads the county government. “I think sometimes the rules overpower common sense.”

I asked him, What if the health department had been around when Jesus was feeding the poor? “He might have been, you know, cited,” Connolly replied with a laugh.

So this story has a happy ending: Connolly exempted churches from the regulations. But let’s not celebrate.

“Fairfax is stepping back,” James said. “They’re saying they’re not going to enforce it … for now. This year. What about next year?”

Again, that’s a pretty astute analysis. If you catch the attention of the media, you can bask in your government leader’s forgiveness. But what about next year, and what about the rest of us who are still stuck with all the rules?

The rules are “well-intended.” They’re meant to make sure the public is safe. But rule-makers tend to forget that their rules have unintended consequences. And, as James pointed out, eating out of dumpsters is more dangerous than eating at a church without a three-compartment sink.