Skip to main content

'Criminalized Kindness': Grandma Sues City That Arrested Her for Feeding the Homeless

Share This article

A 78-year-old grandmother has filed a federal lawsuit against Bullhead City, Arizona, nearly eight months after she was arrested for giving away hot home-cooked meals to homeless people in a city park earlier this year. 

USA Today reports police arrested Norma Thornton for sharing food at a park in violation of a 2021 city ordinance that heavily restricts the sharing of food for "charitable purposes" at a public park. 

According to the 27-page lawsuit, Thornton has been serving people food at the park for four years. Since the nearest shelters and food pantries are located several miles away, she decided to bring the food to the people in the park. 

Thornton is being represented by the nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice (IJ). Her attorneys argue the city's ordinance violates her constitutional rights. In the lawsuit, they note the ordinance prohibits her right to engage in charitable acts and to share food with the needy, which is protected by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. 

"This case is about kindness. Bullhead City has criminalized kindness," Attorney Suranjan Sen, a member of Thornton's legal team told KPHO-TV. "The city council passed an ordinance that makes it a crime punishable by four months imprisonment to share food in public parks for charitable purposes."

Thornton owned and operated a restaurant in Alaska before retiring to Bullhead City several years ago. She became acquainted with the city's homeless population and decided to do something to help. From early 2018 to March 8, 2022, she regularly used a local public park to share her home-cooked food with people in need. 

On March 8, Thornton was arrested and accused of violating the ordinance against sharing food for "charitable purposes" at public parks, AZ Central reported. The charges were later dropped in July. But the Arizona grandmother said she was warned that if she began sharing food in the park again, she would go to jail. 

But she doesn't want to stop helping people. "When you share your food, it warms the people's hearts and it gives them a little piece of you, a little piece of love," she said. "And when it's something that really tastes good or excites them, you can see it in their eyes." 

Thornton said the people she has helped are good people who have fallen on hard times. 

"We share hugs, we share stories, we cry together, we pray together," she explained.

Thornton's hot, fresh meals are cooked from scratch and always include some kind of protein, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. She also provided utensils and plates. After serving food to around 30 people a day, and before leaving the park, she made sure the area was clean. 

Thornton's attorneys argue in court documents that the city's ordinance is too restrictive. It also requires a special one-time permit and gives only a two-hour window to an area in the park for a "food-sharing event" once a month. 

Bullhead City officials say the ordinance is legal.  

"The ordinance does not stop individuals or groups from distributing food or drink to a homeless person, or any other person, in a City park if the food or drink is, 'sealed prepackaged foods readily available from retail outlets and intended for consumption directly from the package,'" the city said in a statement. 

"If the serving of hot-prepared food is desired, it can be accomplished with a City permit but requires the demonstration of a food handler permit. The City takes the safety of its vulnerable populations seriously and works to ensure that the food provided to the homeless, as with other members of the public, has been prepared, handled, and served in a safe and responsible manner. These stipulations are also required of any individual, organization, or business desiring to serve that type of food for a non-social (public-at-large) event," the statement continued. 

***Please sign up for CBN Newsletters and download the CBN News app to ensure you keep receiving the latest news from a distinctly Christian perspective.***

Mackenzie Covert, a spokesperson for Bullhead City, told AZ Central the city decided to pass the Food Sharing Event ordinance in February 2021 because maintenance staff was being called out to the parks by community members to "clean up human waste," litter, and things left over from food sharing events. He said the ordinance aims to maintain the "safety and cleanliness" of the park, as well as ensure the safety of the people receiving the food.

The city's ordinance is not binding on any individuals or organizations who want to serve food to homeless people on private property. 

"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 the city's statement.

Sen told AZ Central if the city was concerned about food safety, they wouldn't allow Thornton to share her food "blocks away" from the park, in the alley. He also said he wonders why the litter left at parks is an issue with homemade foods and not prepackaged foods.

"The city has banned people from assisting other members of the community here. And make no mistake, people in need, people of low income, people who lack shelter, they are members of the community too. And last I checked, this is a public park, and they are members of the public, too," Sen said.

Thornton does not want any money from the city. Her lawsuit only seeks $1.00 in nominal damages for each and every violation of Thornton's rights under the Constitution, and an injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing its ordinance.

The grandmother just wants to go back to helping people in the park. 

CBN News has contacted Bullhead City Attorney Garnet K. Emery for comment. We will post it here if we hear back. 

Share This article

About The Author

Steve Warren is a senior multimedia producer for CBN News. Warren has worked in the news departments of television stations and cable networks across the country. In addition, he also worked as a producer-director in television production and on-air promotion. A Civil War historian, he authored the book The Second Battle of Cabin Creek: Brilliant Victory. It was the companion book to the television documentary titled Last Raid at Cabin Creek currently streaming on Amazon Prime. He holds an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. in Communication from the University of