For they were hungry

An Arizona woman was arrested for feeding the homeless. Now, she’s fighting a legal battle to preserve everyone’s right to help

The man said he just needed directions. He was a vagabond Norma Thornton had never seen before, but she saw that he also needed something that everyone who comes here, to Bullhead City Community Park in Bullhead City, Arizona, needs: a good, hot meal. She offered him a plate of food — the last portion of the day — and he accepted. Some of her regulars had once joked that there should be an 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not waste Norma’s food.” They chatted over the plate of food, but were cut short when another man in a uniform approached.

This man was tall, with a thin, white mustache and a policeman’s badge. He was even wearing one of those large-brimmed hats similar to what the Canadian mounties wear. He had a partner with him, and together, they walked up to Thornton. They told her what she was doing — feeding the homeless and needy — was illegal in Bullhead City’s parks. It had been for almost a year; Ordinance 2021-01 was passed in February 2021 and enacted in May that same year. It forbids sharing prepared food with strangers in city-owned spaces.

Thornton had heard about the law, but she didn’t fully understand it — and besides, she’d been defying it for quite a while by then. This was in March 2022 — more than a year since the city council’s vote to adopt the ordinance. She’d continued her food distribution without incident since then; until now. Someone had reported her meal service in the park. “I’m gonna call my higher-ups,” one officer told her, “and figure out how we’re gonna handle this.” He retreated to his cruiser and called his superior, explaining the situation: He’d approached Thornton to ask what she was doing. She was feeding people: “They’re hungry.”

Norma Thornton has become the face of a legal movement to repeal state and municipal laws that many argue impede the ability to help and feed the needy. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Bullhead City Park rests on the bank of the Colorado River, right across from the southernmost point of Nevada. Dusty brown peaks stare down from across the border, feeling a world away from this spot, with its lush, green lawn and towering shade trees. The feeling of sanctuary is what had brought her here for several years, most days of the week to serve lunch to those in need. In the middle of a desert community, this park was an oasis — for her and the people she served. But this day would be her last. The officer’s superior demanded that 78-year-old Norma Thornton be arrested. “I think this is a PR nightmare,” the on-site officer says over his radio, incredulous about what he must do. “But OK.” 

He returns and delivers on his promise. “Here’s the bad news,” he tells Thornton. “You’re under arrest.” The good news is that she won’t have to spend any time behind bars. The officer doesn’t even use handcuffs. He tells her he’ll have to take her in for fingerprinting, and that this will appear on her record as an official arrest, but he’ll bring her right back here when all’s said and done. “I don’t think you’re a hardened criminal,” he tells her as he places her in the back of his F-150. “I don’t think you’re out to hurt me.” 

Thornton’s arrest is the latest battle in a decadeslong, nationwide effort to criminalize feeding the needy. Similar laws exist across America, from Florida to Texas, including many of the biggest cities in the West: Las Vegas, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. A lawyer representing an accused community meal group in Houston called “Food Not Bombs,” told a local NBC affiliate in May that the city’s law was “absurd,” that “it’s criminalizing the Samaritan for giving.”

Thornton agrees, and because the optics of her particular case are so spectacular, her story has become a national flashpoint in the debate over whether feeding the homeless is an act of civic charity or a crime. Her case has appeared in The Washington Post, NPR, CBS and other national media outlets. The publicity helped attract the attention of the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm that promised to help not only Thornton, but similar people across the country; people who want to help the needy and end up under arrest instead. 

In Thornton’s case, the arrest was at least quick. But during her time at the station, she remembers one officer making her a promise. “Don’t do it anymore,” Thornton recalls him saying. “Because if you do that here in the park, you will be arrested and I will take you to Kingman” — the site of the county jail.

“I was feeding my friends. Those people are my friends. They’re not homeless nobodies. They are people.”

Norma Thornton prepares a meal that she will distribute to homeless people in Bullhead City, Ariz,. on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Norma Thornton moved to Bullhead City, Arizona, back in 2017 — not that she wanted to. “I came because I don’t believe in divorce,” she explains. By then, she’d spent the majority of her life in Alaska with her current husband, Shorty. She’d found refuge there after her previous husband died in a car accident. She worked odd jobs to make ends meet, including tending bar at a place called the Hunger Hut. That’s where she met Shorty. He spent decades working in oil fields and wanted to retire someplace warm. She followed him to Arizona, even though Alaska was where she wanted to be. For her last 20 years there, she ran a restaurant called The Lighthouse Inn out of a motel in Homer, and she loved it. It was hard work that wasn’t always stable, but it was enough. 

She grew up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, in a “two-room shanty” with her grandmother, who “never had anything but was always willing to share anything she did have.” That lesson was reinforced by Sunday School classes, where she learned about the parable of the sheep and the goats.

In that story, Jesus explains what separates the righteous from the wicked in the face of divine judgment: The righteous, he says, will be those who fed him when he was hungry, and gave him a drink when he was thirsty. His followers don’t understand what he means; they don’t recall ever doing that for him. Jesus responds, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” That lesson has always resonated with Thornton, who can quote the scriptures nearly verbatim. “If you have a lot, you should share it,” she says. “And I’ve always felt that I have plenty because I have everything I need.”

At least for the most part. Before her second husband, Vern J. Sylvester, got into his fatal accident, he was in another accident in 1970 in their home of Oregon. He had a compound fracture in his leg that made working impossible. Thornton was pregnant with their eighth child at the time. She took in laundry to help out, but “without the help of other people,” she says, “it would have been really, really hard.” The same thing happened when he died in 1977. “I wasn’t able to work,” she says. “I was totally a wreck. And if people hadn’t helped, and brought food, and lent support emotionally, I’m not real sure where we would have been.” 

Once she recovered, she remarried — to Shorty, who is her husband now of 38 years. After they made the move from Alaska to Arizona, she joined a nondenominational Christian congregation called the Little White Church of Oatman, about 40 minutes southeast of Bullhead City Community Park. A few years ago the pastor had a heart attack, and she visited him at the hospital.

Shirley Rogers and Norma Thornton embrace after distributing a free meal to homeless people in Bullhead City, Ariz., on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. Rogers is a routine visitor for Thornton’s meals and often helps distribute the food, but will soon be moving to Georgia where she has family. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

There, she spoke with a man named John, who helps in the church’s volunteer efforts. When he learned that she ran a restaurant in Alaska for decades, he asked if she’d be interested in filling in for him at a feeding service for the needy while he was out of town on business. She agreed and worked two Wednesdays that first month.

At the time, many different groups fed the homeless at the park, and she gradually got more and more involved. When Covid hit, most of those groups stopped coming, but not Thornton. “It just seemed like it was more necessary then,” she says, “to do even more.” Her two shifts a month quickly became six days a week, serving up spaghetti or chicken and rice casserole or whatever else she could think to make for lunch. Usually between 30 and 40 folks showed up for the meal, which became a steady tradition week after week and day after day. 

By early 2021, news of her feeding program and others like it had reached the chambers of the Bullhead City Council. The city said its proposal was meant to make public parks more accessible for residents, some of whom had complained for years about the problems associated with concentrating large groups of homeless folks there; namely leftover trash, human waste and general nuisance from people loitering in the park, which is one of a handful in the small town of around 42,000.

“This isn’t an anti-homeless discussion,” City Manager Toby Cotter said during the public discussion of the proposed ordinance. “It’s about utilization of public parks.”

The city wanted to funnel the homeless population to the meal services at the local homeless shelter rather than continuing to host competing events on city property. It allowed such events to continue on private property, but if Thornton hoped to continue serving food in the park, she’d need an event permit, evidence of compliance with county food regulations, a million-dollar liability insurance policy, and a refundable $250 deposit should the city need to provide cleaning services.

“Those in favor said it was time to make a change after years of allowing people and groups to feed the homeless,” the city’s local newspaper reported, because the practice creates health and safety issues in the city’s parks.

However, most people in attendance were opposed to the new law. One speaker even brought out a PowerPoint presentation to make his case. “Access to food is a basic human right,” he said. “When the act of sharing food is limited and prohibited, the cities are violating that human right.” Nevertheless, the Council voted 5-2 to adopt the ordinance. No one at the meeting, or in the city, could’ve imagined that vote would lead to a federal civil rights lawsuit. Least of all, Norma Thornton. 

Norma Thornton poses for a photo at her home in Bullhead City, Ariz., while preparing a meal to give out to homeless people on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“They don’t know how desperate some people can be, or how easily — just how doggone easily — a person can find themselves going from a nice home, a good car, even a decent job and suddenly find themselves with nothing.

In July 2022, Bullhead City dropped the charges against Thornton. City Prosecutor Martin Rogers explained that he believed Thornton’s lack of knowledge of the ordinance was sincere, and because she now understood it, he’d chosen to dismiss her case “in the interest of justice.” But in October, Thornton chose to file a civil rights complaint with Arizona’s U.S. District Court. It rested on two separate arguments, both based on two clauses from the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. 

The first argument, according to attorney Diana Simpson, is that the city’s law only requires a permit if you’re sharing food with strangers; not if you’re sharing with family or friends. Thornton believes that should end any discussion of her liability right there. “I was feeding my friends. Those people are my friends,” she says. “They’re not homeless nobodies. They are people.”

And that’s pretty much what her lawyers will argue: It’s impossible to define a meaningful difference between strangers and friends in a situation like Thornton’s, which puts the ordinance in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Under that clause, the state cannot “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Since the law treats strangers and nonstrangers differently, Thornton’s legal team argues, it’s unconstitutional. 

Additionally, her lawyers plan to argue something even bigger: Aside from the specific language of this particular ordinance, any ordinance with similar goals should be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause. “People have been helping others since time immemorial, and that charitable impulse is baked into the American ethos. It’s something that people have been doing since the beginning of this country,” Simpson says. “And so to require people to go through this rigmarole in order to help others kind of breaks from that foundation and contradicts what this country is designed to do, and this country’s constitutional protections.”

City leaders maintain that they’re not against feeding the homeless; they just want it to be done in certain places, away from city parks. And that’s what most bothers Thornton about this whole situation. Public parks are supposed to be places for everyone to gather, whether they’re wealthy or homeless or have just fallen on hard times.

“They have never been in a space where they have been hungry,” Thornton says. “They don’t know how desperate some people can be, or how easily — just how doggone easily — a person can find themselves going from a nice home, a good car, even a decent job and suddenly find themselves with nothing. They don’t realize how fragile it is. They just can’t comprehend. And I’m sad for them. I’m very very sad for them that they don’t understand how they can impact other people’s lives so harshly.”

She doesn’t have the answer for how to end homelessness. Neither does her legal team. “Homelessness is an intractable problem,” Simpson admits. “It’s very difficult to solve.” But criminalizing the people trying to help, she and Thornton agree, is not helpful — regardless of good or even cynical intentions. “There are all kinds of good-meaning and innovative people who are just trying to address some of society’s most intractable problems,” Simpson says. “And governments are starting to get in the way of that. And that just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Norma Thornton, left, says a prayer with those assembled to receive a free meal she has prepared in Bullhead City, Ariz., on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Some of her regulars joked that there should be an 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not waste Norma’s food.”

With her lawsuit pending — her team submitted a petition for summary judgment in early November and is still waiting to hear back — Thornton is back to doing what got her into trouble. “I’ve never stopped, no sir,” she says. “The very day I got out of court, I still served food.” But not at the park. 

Instead, she visited nearby businesses, seeking one that would allow her to use its land to set up shop. After several rejections, a Jet Ski retailer gave her access to its lot — a small patch of asphalt and gravel just a few blocks from where her troubles began. Whatever happens with her lawsuit, she doesn’t plan to go back to the park. The city has since made renovations, removing the tables and trees. “It’s just open and barren,” Thornton says — hardly better than where she is now. But she doesn’t want to stay at the Jet Ski shop, either. Her new vision is bigger. 

She may be 80 years old, and she may not understand her city’s — or anyone’s — impulse to criminalize people who want to help in the “wrong” way, but she hopes to find a property where she can expand her feeding program; where she can make it bigger than just herself. Almost like a refuge for like-minded people — and for people like that man who showed up preceding her arrest. If public parks can’t be a place for everyone, this will be. “And I know people would come and help and volunteer time,” she says, “because there are so many good people out there — people that want to help.”

This story appears in the December issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.