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A retiree served food to the homeless for years. Then it got her arrested.

Norma Thornton is challenging a local ordinance in Arizona that outlaws serving prepared food for ‘charitable purposes’

Norma Thornton, 78, serves food to homeless people in Bullhead City, Ariz., at a backup location. (Institute for Justice)
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Police often patrolled Community Park in Bullhead City, Ariz., so Norma Thornton paid two officers no mind when they rolled up in cruisers on March 8 as she finished serving food to homeless people.

The 78-year-old retiree didn’t worry when they chatted her up about feeding dozens of people in the park, something she had done several times a week for years.

And when one of the officers told her he was arresting her for violating the city’s new ordinance that outlawed people serving prepared food in public parks for “charitable purposes,” Thornton still suspected someone was pulling a prank.

Only when the officer put her in the back seat of his cruiser did reality set in — and then fear.

“It was pretty traumatic,” she told The Washington Post.

On Tuesday, seven months after her arrest, Thornton filed a lawsuit against Bullhead City, accusing the officers of violating her civil rights. She’s asking a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for Arizona to declare the city’s ordinance unconstitutional and prohibit officials from enforcing it. She argues the ordinance discriminates against people who dish out prepared food to strangers while allowing others to serve the same items at family or social events hosted in public parks.

“The city of Bullhead has made it a crime to feed the needy,” Thornton said.

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Bullhead City maintains the ordinance is legal and says do-gooders can still serve certain foods to the hungry. In a statement, officials said the city’s “Food Sharing Events” ordinance allows people to give out food or drink so long as they’re “sealed prepackaged foods readily available from retail outlets and intended for consumption directly from the package.” People who want to serve unsealed, prepared food have to apply for a food handler’s 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,” officials said in the statement.

Bullhead City passed its ordinance in February 2021. In doing so, it noted that “outdoor food sharing events” were happening frequently in public parks. Reacting to complaints, workers from multiple city departments had repeatedly gone out to clean up “human waste, litter, trash and other debris left over from the food sharing events,” according to the ordinance.

“These activities have resulted in a deterioration of the condition of public property and negatively affect use of parks by other patrons,” the ordinance states.

Police Chief Robert Trebes said his officers spent nine months after the enactment of the ordinance educating people about the new measure and warning potential offenders without citing or arresting anyone. Officers tell homeless people about social services they can use and even drive them to a shelter rather than “enabling them by just leaving them where they are and bringing them things,” Trebes said Tuesday in a Facebook post.

“When incidents like this occur, where citizens, even well meaning, violate the law, it becomes counterproductive to what we are trying to accomplish with this vulnerable population,” the chief said. “We want them to get help to get out of their situation, not keep them in it.”

Thornton moved to Bullhead City in 2017 after getting out of the food industry. For nearly 20 years, she owned and operated a diner while raising a family in Nikiski, Alaska. After retiring, she headed south to warmer climes.

While exploring her new city, Thornton met homeless people and others barely getting by in Community Park and decided to resurrect her culinary skills, her lawsuit states. She started making large batches of food at home and taking it to the park, where she spent about two hours a day setting up, serving meals and then cleaning, according to the suit. She always included a protein, usually meat, as well as fruits and vegetables, aiming to provide people with a healthy meal that tasted good, it adds.

“Norma hoped that her efforts would not only keep people alive but also help them turn things around,” her lawsuit states. “Moreover, Norma hoped her example could inspire her community to do more to help those in need.”

In her lawsuit, Thornton maintains that she gave out utensils and plates and made sure to leave the park cleaner than when she arrived.

Thornton told The Post that, despite her arrest, she never stopped cooking and still serves people four to five times a week. Attorneys for the city abandoned their case against Thornton over the summer, saying she didn’t know about the ordinance, but warned her that if she returned to the park to serve food, she could no longer rely on that defense, said Suranjan Sen, a lawyer with the nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice, which represents Thornton.

The threat of another arrest — and possible jail time — forced her to decamp from the park, Thornton said. Now she sets up less than a mile away, where a landowner lets her use part of his property. She was preparing to head out there on Tuesday afternoon by whipping up a Thanksgiving-style meal — turkey with gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes and green beans. For dessert: white or chocolate cake.

Thornton is grateful but said the site is not ideal. Without the park’s benches and pavilion, there’s nowhere to sit and no protection from the merciless Arizona sun. About half the number of people show up at the new location, Sen said.

Thornton wants to help as many people as possible, which is why she’s suing, she said. She wants to go back to the park where she can bring help to those who need it, instead of requiring them to come find her.

“Food is a way to show love,” she said. “Golly, I don’t know, it’s just always been that way.”