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An Arizona grandmother was arrested for giving food to the hungry. Now, she's suing

Norma Thornton is arrested. Her misdemeanor charges for violating a city ordinance were later dropped.
Bullhead City Police Department/Institute for Justice/Screenshot by NPR
Norma Thornton is arrested. Her misdemeanor charges for violating a city ordinance were later dropped.

A 78-year-old woman is taking Bullhead City, Ariz., to court over her arrest earlier this year for feeding the homeless community at a local public park.

The Institute for Justice wants a federal court to effectively end the city ordinance that prohibits Norma Thornton from giving food to the hungry in a public park. Thornton's attorneys say the ordinance violates several of the woman's civil rights granted under the 14th amendment.

Thornton, who has experienced homelessness and food insecurity in her life, has gone to Bullhead City Community Park for more than four years to bring home-cooked, hot meals to the area's unhoused population gathered there.

In March, Thornton was stopped by police and arrested, charged with violating a local ordinance that makes it illegal to share prepared food in a public park "for charitable purposes" without a permit.

The Institute for Justice released the body camera footage of the woman's arrest. In it, a police officer is clearly resistant to arresting the Arizona grandmother in a call with his supervisor.

The video captures the officer over the phone telling his supervisor, "I think this is a PR nightmare, but OK." Shortly thereafter, he arrested Thornton, though he declined to place the woman in handcuffs.

Prosecutors eventually dropped her misdemeanor charge, but Thornton's legal team wants to see the ordinance dropped altogether.

Norma Thornton, 78, is arrested by a Bullhead City police officer after she was caught feeding the hungry in a city park, in violation of a local ordinance.
/ Bullhead City Police Department/Institute for Justice/Screenshot by NPR
/
Bullhead City Police Department/Institute for Justice/Screenshot by NPR
Norma Thornton, 78, is arrested by a Bullhead City police officer after she was caught feeding the hungry in a city park, in violation of a local ordinance.

To continue feeding the city's homeless at this park in accordance with city law, Thornton would have to pay to receive a restrictive city permit, the Institute for Justice said. The permit would limit Thornton's activities to just a two-hour window once a month.

The city has defended its ordinance in an official response posted on Facebook.

"Individuals are free to serve food to any homeless person at their place of residence, church or private property. Our ordinance applies to public parks only," Mayor Tom Brady said in a statement. He went on to say the city funds a homeless shelter that can provide two meals a day to the community, while keeping parks clear.

Rising home costs, inflation, job loss due to the pandemic and the end of the COVID-19 eviction moratorium have been blamed for a spike in homelessness in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere in Arizona. Communities are still struggling to find a workable solution to help the homeless find housing and resources.

For now, Thornton is still feeding the area's hungry at a temporary site in a private alleyway near a local business — though that area has no shade or rest areas for people to sit, eat and wash up.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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