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Laws That Target Homeless Imperil Programs That Feed Them Outdoors

Jul 6, 2012
Originally published on July 30, 2012 9:20 pm

A growing number of cities want to tackle the problem of homelessness by outlawing what are known as "acts of daily living" — sleeping, eating and panhandling in public. In Philadelphia, a new rule is targeting not the homeless but those who feed them.

When Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced the ban on serving food in public parks last March, he said moving such services indoors was part of an effort to raise standards for the homeless.

"I believe that people, regardless of their station in life, should be able to actually sit down, at a table, to a meal inside, away from the heat and the cold, the rain and the snow, the vehicle exhaust and all the other distractions of everyday city life," Nutter said at a press conference.

Indoor facilities, Nutter says, also make it easier to connect homeless people with other supportive services.

But many advocates for the homeless are skeptical. "We at the national level see this as a trend much more about restricting activities that really define the homeless experience," says Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"We do feel that communities are really, really frustrated with repeated efforts to end homelessness that have been quite unsuccessful," says Donovan. "But we push back and say, you know, that doesn't mean that you simply throw your hands in the air and make criminals out of homeless people."

Donovan says around 30 cities have restricted food sharing in some way.

He argues that the rules, and a growing number of ordinances against loitering, panhandling and camping, don't just marginalize the homeless. "It really takes the focus off of solutions and puts it much more on restrictions," he says.

In Philadelphia, some charity groups have moved to a space near City Hall, equipped with portable toilets and hand-washing stations. The space is being offered by the city as a temporary solution until more indoor meals can be offered.

Other groups have already moved inside, to places like the downtown church of minister Bill Golderer.

In the church, groups offer meals three times a week, and at the same time connect guests with on-site health care and social service providers.

Golderer says he doesn't exactly support the ban on outdoor meals for the homeless, but he does think the hungry deserve better than they're getting now.

"Maybe this is the time to look at a new approach," he says. "Maybe we haven't done everything we can. Maybe we haven't looked at every opportunity to serve people better."

Philadelphia's ban was scheduled to go into effect June 1, but the city is delaying enforcement until a judge addresses a lawsuit filed by religious groups that claim it is unconstitutional.

Already, though, the city's hungry say it's getting harder to find meals in their usual spots. Chiekh Dai was waiting at the foot of a statue near Museum Row on a recent afternoon when no one showed up to serve.

"That makes me feel, you know, they don't care, they don't care about homeless. That's how I feel, and that hurts sometime, believe me. That hurts," said Dai.

A Philadelphia city spokesman wouldn't comment for this story owing to the pending litigation. Similar measures in Las Vegas and, more recently, Houston, have been rolled back after public outcry or legal challenges.

Copyright 2013 WHYY, Inc.. To see more, visit http://www.whyy.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Growing numbers of cities are prohibiting so-called acts of living in public. That is activities including sleeping and eating in public spaces. And now in Philadelphia there's a new rule targeting those who feed homeless people in public.

From member station WHYY, Carolyn Beeler reports.

CAROLYN BEELER, BYLINE: Adam Bruckner is standing on a park bench in downtown Philadelphia, yelling so the gathered crowd can hear him.

ADAM BRUCKNER: Hold on to your plates and forks, we will have more than enough for seconds.

BEELER: Bruckner is talking to more than a hundred hungry and homeless people lined up around the edge of the park.

BRUCKNER: Let's respect each other's space today. We'll treat each other well. We'll get out of here safely.

BEELER: With his nonprofit, Bruckner has served hot meals in this park for a decade. The menu has become routine.

BRUCKNER: Fresh food, beef pasta, tuna pasta, chicken hot dogs.

BEELER: But soon, what Bruckner is doing will probably be illegal. At a March press conference, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced a ban on serving food in public parks.

MICHAEL NUTTER: I believe that people regardless of their station in life should be able to actually sit down at a table to a meal inside, away from the heat and the cold, the rain and the snow, the vehicle exhaust and all the other distractions of everyday city life.

BEELER: Nutter says he wants to move food-sharing programs to more dignified indoor locations, where people can also be connected to supportive services. But many advocates for the homeless are skeptical.

NEIL DONOVAN: We, at the national level, see this as a trend much more about restricting activities that really define the homeless experience.

BEELER: Neil Donovan is the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

DONOVAN: We do feel that communities are really, really frustrated with repeated efforts to end homelessness that have been quite unsuccessful. But we push back and say, you know, that doesn't mean that you simply throw your hands in the air and make criminals out of homeless people.

BEELER: Donavan says around 30 cities have restricted food-sharing in some way. He argues the rules and a growing number of ordinances against loitering, panhandling and camping don't just marginalize the homeless.

DONOVAN: It really takes the focus off of solutions and puts it much more on restrictions.

BEELER: In Philadelphia, some charity groups have moved to a space near city hall equipped with portable toilets and hand-washing stations. It's being offered by the city as a temporary solution until more indoor meals can be offered.

Other groups have already moved inside to places like Bill Golderer's downtown church. They offer meals three times a week, and at the same time connect guests with onsite health care and social service providers. Golderer says he's not exactly for the ban, but he does think the hungry deserve better than they're getting now.

BILL GOLDERER: Maybe this is the time to look at a new approach. Maybe we haven't done everything we can. Maybe we haven't looked at every opportunity to serve people better.

BEELER: Philadelphia's ban was scheduled to go into effect June 1st, but the city is delaying enforcement until a judge addresses a lawsuit filed by faith-based groups who claim it's unconstitutional. Already, though, the city's hungry say it's getting harder to find meals in the places they used to.

Chiekh Dai was waiting at the foot of a statue near museum row on a recent afternoon when no one showed up to serve.

CHIEKH DAI: That makes me feel, you know, they don't care, they don't care about homeless. That's how I feel. And that hurts sometime, believe me. That hurts.

BEELER: A city spokesman wouldn't comment for this story due to the pending litigation. Similar measures in Las Vegas, and more recently Houston, have been rolled back after public outcry or legal challenges.

For NPR News, I'm Carolyn Beeler in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.