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Dayton man feeding homeless arrested for giving out food without permit

A screenshot from a video recording of the arrest.
Nourish Our Neighbors
A screenshot from a video recording of the arrest.

Dayton police officers arrested a man handing out meals to unhoused people, accusing him of distributing food without a permit.

Organizers and volunteers with Nourish Our Neighbors had gathered at Courthouse Square on April 7 with about 300 meals to give out to those in need.

They said about 30 minutes into their distribution, police officers walked up to them and asked if they had a permit.

In a video recording shared with WYSO, three police officers are handcuffing Mitchell West, a volunteer who was part of the meal distribution.

“Our thought process was that, well, if they give us tickets, they'll leave us alone,” said Paige Lee, a member of the group who was there. They were not expecting the police to make an arrest. Police released Mitchell West later that day.
The Dayton Police Department declined an interview request from WYSO.

For the past two years, Nourish Our Neighbors has given out free meals, clothes and medical supplies to those in need at Courthouse Square. The group said they know a permit is needed for food distribution.

“We just feel there's no reason we should have to pay the city and we then go out, buy all of these supplies, and items, and make all this food just to give out to the community that they (the city) are supposed to be serving,” Lee said.

The ordinance, which the city passed in 2005, states no one should prepare or distribute food, clothing or toiletries in a public place within the central area of Dayton without a permit. Violation of this ordinance are a fourth degree misdemeanor.

A city spokesperson told WYSO the $50 permit allows the city to be aware of any incidents that might affect public safety and ensures that groups adhere to guidelines of proper food distribution.

They said the city has not had any issue with groups at Courthouse Square with regards to permit cooperation prior to the incident on April 7.

Sarah Weber, from the nonprofit law firm ABLE, said the ordinance is a balance between someone’s First Amendment right of expression versus the city's need to protect the public.

“So the question would be, the person or parties that are handing out food, what is their expression and belief through doing that? And by them doing that, are they actually doing a public harm?" Weber explained.

But this raises the question of whether anyone trying to help by giving away food and aid could be arrested.

I myself have handed out a granola bar to a person that seemed to need it. So does the city want to require permits for people to do the right thing?” Weber said.

Nourish Our Neighbors said they will continue monthly meal distributions at Courthouse Square and they hope the city will revisit the ordinance.

We believe the ordinance is unconstitutional,” said Mckahla Jena, another member of the group. “We also believe that the city uses this ordinance to criminalize the homeless, and possibly also in an effort to further gentrify downtown Dayton.”

Ngozi Cole is the Business and Economics Reporter for WYSO. She graduated with honors from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York and is a 2022 Pulitzer Center Post-Graduate Reporting Fellow. Ngozi is from Freetown, Sierra Leone.