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Norma Thornton spent almost 20 years running a restaurant in Alaska before retiring to Arizona with her husband in 2017. With more time on her hands, she started cooking hot meals and giving them to the homeless population around Bullhead City.
In time, her charitable activities attracted attention from other quarters: the police.
Thornton was arrested in March for violating a city ordinance passed last year that prohibits the sharing of prepared food in public parks. Now she's suing Bullhead City, alleging the city law violates her 14th Amendment right to engage in charitable acts.
The 78-year-old grandmother told CBS MoneyWatch that she should be allowed to share food with the less fortunate, no matter the place.
"This case is about kindness," Sen told CBS affiliate KPHO. "Bullhead City has criminalized kindness."
Norma Thornton, 78, feeds a group of homeless people in Bullhead City, Arizona. She told CBS MoneyWatch that she wants to be kind to the area's less fortunate. Institute for Justice
One of her lawyers, Suranjan Sen of the Institute for Justice, claims Bullhead's ban unfairly targets Thornton, who has been feeding the homeless since 2018.
In court documents filed Wednesday, the lawsuit alleges the ban prohibits giving food to the homeless in a park but allows anyone to have a birthday party and feed dozens of people.
"In other words, a person can give out food to their friends but cannot give the exact same food to someone they are trying to help," her suit claims.
Thornton's lawyers want a federal judge to strike down Bullhead's law and force the city to pay their client $1 for every instance where her constitutional rights were violated.
When asked for comment, Bullhead City officials pointed to a Facebook post Wednesday that claims Thornton's lawsuit is "misleading and lacks many critical details." The Food Sharing Event ordinance is "lawful" and doesn't apply to private groups or family gatherings, the city said.
According to the city, Thornton broke the law because she was serving food at Bullhead City Community Park, a public park.
"Individuals are free to serve food to any homeless person at their place of residence, church or private property," Bullhead Mayor Tom Brady said in the post. "Our ordinance applies to public parks only."
A ban on sharing food in public parks is part of Bullhead's larger effort to clear out homeless population encampments, the lawsuit alleges, which cited city council meeting minutes from February 2021.
A video created by the Institute for Justice about a Bullhead City woman feeding the homeless in City parks is... Posted by Bullhead City, Arizona, Government on Tuesday, October 25, 2022
Anyone can share food with the homeless at a public park as long as it's "sealed prepackaged foods readily available from retail outlets and intended for consumption directly from the package," the city said. But if someone wants to serve prepared hot food, they must first obtain a permit and a food handler's license, according to the city's statement.
After police arrested Thornton, she protested and city prosecutors dropped the charges, according to the suit. Thornton said she didn't pay a fine or serve jail time. She told CBS MoneyWatch she has gone back to feeding the homeless since the arrest.
Thornton said she cooks spaghetti, shepherd's pie, fried chicken and pork chops for the homeless, spending roughly six hours a day preparing the meals at home. She spends about $20 on food per meal, Thornton's lawyers said. She gives meals to roughly 30 people a day, according to the lawsuit.
Thornton told CBS MoneyWatch she spends about half her monthly Social Security check on the meals, which she prepares about four times a week. Her lawyers noted that she was motivated to feed the homeless in part because Bullhead has only three food pantries, which don't fully serve the needs of the homeless community.
"Although these provide a very important service to the community, they do not fully solve the area's hunger challenges," the complaint reads. "They are geographically limited, and they have a limited amount and selection of food and limited operating hours."
Thornton said feeding the homeless has become such an integral part of her life now that the people have become de facto family members. Thornton said over the years she has listened to stories of how each "family member" became homeless and has come to realize that each of them fell upon hard times for different reasons.
"Some of them at one juncture were quite wealthy," she said. "There has been death in families that created a situation where they find themselves out in the open. There's so many stories, it's no one story that fits."
Retired restauranteur Norma Thornton feeds homeless people in Bullhead City, Arizona. She is suing the city government for arresting her for sharing food in a public park. Institute for Justice
In August, Thornton moved her food-for-the-homeless operation to an alley behind a local jet ski store — with the owner's blessing — because of the city's law.
A back alley isn't the ideal place to feed the homeless, Thornton said, but she continues to provide meals there anyway because of "the look on those people's faces when they get a good, hot meal — the gratitude that they show."
"I remember my very first hug I got," she said. "It brings tears to your eyes."