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COMMENTARY: Bullhead City arrests grandma for sharing food

Norma Thornton brought more than hot meals to homeless neighbors seeking shade in Bullhead City Community Park in Arizona. She brought love. But her daily visits stopped on March 8 when the police arrested her.

Thornton’s crime was kindness. Specifically, the police accused her of having “charitable purposes” when she shared food on city land. Now Bullhead City is criminally prosecuting her.

A municipal ordinance, passed in February, allows social food sharing on city land as long as the motive is not charity. A birthday party with family and friends would be legal, for example. But Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity would be run out of town.

Thornton, a 78-year-old grandmother, struggles with the distinction. Some of the people she feeds are transients, but others are long-term residents she has known since she moved to Bullhead City in 2018. Thornton sits with them, learns their names, listens to their stories and sometimes prays with them at the park on the banks of the Colorado River. Afterward, she helps them clean up to avoid littering.

“When we get together for the food and to hang out, they are my friends,” she says. “How is that different than if you share food with your friends?”

Thornton still provides meals three to five times per week, but now she stops in a private driveway — with the owner’s permission — and waits for members of the homeless group to come and pick up the food from her car and carry it back to the park. “I miss my hugs most of all,” she says.

Yet if Thornton joins her friends in the park while they eat, the police have threatened to take her to jail for a night. The prospect keeps her away.

Thornton’s life experience includes six months on the edge of homelessness, which gives her empathy. After her first husband died, she found herself without a job and five children ages 6 to 17. The family survived in a blue-and-white school bus, which Thornton fixed up like a motor home.

The family drove from Oregon to Alaska, parking at shopping centers, state parks and back roads. Along the way, Thornton received help from many generous people.

Eventually her circumstances improved, and she purchased a restaurant, bar and 10-room motel called the Lighthouse Inn on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Overall, Thornton worked in food and hospitality for 50 years, which is where she learned to feed large groups of people. Now she wants to give back using money from her Social Security checks and other charitable sources.

Unfortunately, Bullhead City and other municipalities frequently reject private solutions to complex social problems. Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, has represented multiple clients in recent years who offered their own resources to help, only to face government persecution.

For example, Kathy Hay received a citation when she opened a free food pantry in her backyard in Washington state. Sage Lewis got shut down when he allowed displaced homeless campers to set up tents behind his commercial property in Akron, Ohio.

Thornton will learn her fate on Thursday, in Bullhead City Municipal Court. The maximum penalty for her kindness is 120 days in jail, two years on probation and a fine of $1,431. Despite the threats, Thornton remains unrepentant.

“I feel like the Lord will protect me,” she says. “I only wish I could do more.”

Bullhead City should get out of the way and let her.

Erica Smith Ewing is a senior attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

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