Woman sues after arrest for feeding homeless community

Rush Hour

(NewsNation) — Seventy-eight-year-old Norma Thornton was feeding unhoused people in her community, as she had for the past four years, until the Bullhead City, Arizona, police rolled up.

The great-grandmother was criminally charged, and although those charges have since been dropped, she’s now suing, claiming her rights were violated.

Thornton can cook for a crowd. It was something that she did several days a week at the park near her home. That ended in March, when the police approached Thornton as she was scraping the bottom of her pans, she said.

“To be told you cannot feed the hungry regardless of what the circumstances are, it’s sad, but it makes me really, really angry to put it bluntly,” Thornton said.

It’s hard to track exact numbers, but nationwide more municipalities are banning things like panhandling and feeding people experiencing homelessness.

Some argue that it’s an effort to encourage people to seek existing services, but Thornton, who once was homeless, said those services aren’t enough and people are going hungry.

The officer who approached Thornton told her he would call his higher-ups to see how to handle the situation.

“Here’s the bad news,” the officer told her. “You’re under arrest.”

Thornton was booked and fingerprinted, facing as many as four months in jail and $12,000 in fines and fees.

Those charges have since been dropped.

City spokesperson Mackenzie Covert said Thornton’s actions were detracting from local services, including one built by Catholic Charities and funded, in part, by the city.

“It provides beds, it provides laundry service, it provides mental health service,” she said. “If all you’re providing is food, that’s not helping.”

Thornton, however, is serving again — this time in a private alley with permission from a local business. Unlike the park, there are no benches, bathrooms or shade, Thornton said.

“The thought of people being hungry,” she said. “I’m not making a big impact. It’s not that much really. But at least some people have enough food to survive.”

Covert said the city’s ordinance allows Thornton to continue her volunteering in the alley, or if she wants to stop cooking it at home, she could hand out pre-packaged, store-bought food in the park.

Thornton’s federal suit seeks $1 for each of the three counts in her lawsuit and for the right to return with her home-cooked meals.

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