Arrested for feeding homeless, this Arizona Christian woman is suing city

By Danielle Jarvis
homeless woman

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

In Bullhead City, Arizona, your kindness might cost you your freedom. It nearly did for Norma Thornton, a grandmother who was arrested and criminally charged for feeding those in need. Under a new ordinance, the city has deemed it a criminal misdemeanor—punishable by fines and even imprisonment—to share prepared food in a public park “for charitable purposes.”

As the city attorney clarified, people may freely share food in public parks at “social events, which would include a party.” But be sure your “party” doesn’t include any homeless people, or you might go to jail. 

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 2022, 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.

“I don’t care what they say. They are wrong and I’m right,” she said.

“As the day was just finishing up and everybody was pretty well gone, (the) last gentleman came up, I dished up his food and just as he was walking away, a couple of police officers drove up, and asked what I was doing,” Thornton told CBN News’ Faithwire.

“Technically I’m supposed to be handcuffing you and everything too but I’m not going to do that because I don’t think you’re a hardened criminal,” an officer can be heard proclaiming. “I don’t think you’re out to hurt me.

“The number one motivation is my Savior, Jesus Christ,” Thornton said. “In his Father, we are told repeatedly: the first and most foremost commandment is love — love thy neighbor, love your fellow man. He tells us several times, ‘What you do to the least of my people, you so do to me.’”

“Whatever I have, I try to turn it into something good,” Thornton told AZ Central.

Thornton served about 35 people each day with these homemade meals. Sometimes she did it all by herself; her husband has also helped distribute them.

Besides sharing food, Thornton also brought hygiene products such as shampoo or toothbrushes to give to unhoused people, and she has helped people by giving them rides to the store.