Philadelphia Regulates Brotherly Love to Curb Homeless Picnics

When Philadelphia’s spring dogwoods blossom, Brian Jenkins will head to a triangular greenway on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway just before dusk and help set up two long, cloth-covered tables where cornbread, grilled Tilapia and peach cobbler are served to the homeless.

The outdoor feeding that begins each May includes music, sometimes a banjo-strumming gospel singer or a sound system and a choir. Parents come with children in tow, and while some have found a place to sleep, in an economy still recovering from recession, more are in need of something to eat.

This year, the annual ritual has sparked a clash between groups such as Chosen 300 Ministries Inc., where Jenkins works, and Mayor Michael Nutter. The city has banned feedings in city parks, except for family picnics and public events, and is considering rules to protect the homeless from foodborne illness. Jenkins says the requirements, such as preparing items in approved facilities and attending food-safety classes, are a ploy to rid tourist areas of people deemed an eyesore.

“Jesus didn’t have to go to an approved kitchen,” Jenkins said. “If I have to pay a fine, then I will. I’m still going to feed outside, the way I always have. I’ll just put up a sign that says ‘God’s Family Picnic.’”

Philadelphia’s city leaders are entering a showdown that’s playing out across the U.S., according to advocates for the homeless. Dallas has implemented food-safety requirements and cities such as Middletown, Connecticut, and Nashville, Tennessee, have stopped food distribution that didn’t comply with public health codes. The churches and ministries aren’t going quietly.

Nationally Tense

“This is nationally very tense,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz said in an interview.

Homeless advocates say it’s not the cost that’s bothering them, since many municipalities are offering food-training classes for free. Instead, they’re concerned the bureaucratic intrusions will cause some small operations, such as those that don’t have access to approved kitchens, to shut down.

Philadelphia’s Board of Health is scheduled today to consider additional food-safety standards for feeding three or more people outside, including a mandatory permit. Nutter said another policy change that bans outdoor feeding at city parks will increase “the health, safety, dignity and support” for the homeless.

“It’s not about who is on the parkway but how it is used,” Nutter said in prepared remarks March 15 announcing his policy changes. “Providing food to those who are hungry must not be about opening the car trunk, handing out a bunch of sandwiches and then driving off into a dark and rainy night.”

Houston Ordinance

Houston Mayor Annise Parker has also been the target of criticism as her city considers restrictions on homemade meals.

“People have the best intentions, but you leave food out for four hours or don’t store it properly, it can be severe,” Jessica Michan, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said in an interview.

Houston this month considered making those who feed the homeless register, banning the storage or preparation of food in private homes and requiring that one person obtain food-safety training. Fines would have been as much as $2,000.

The proposal has been amended and now makes food-safety training voluntary, with violations of as much as $500 if permission to serve food isn’t obtained by the property owner. Hearings have brought crowds of almost 100 people and left one lawmaker in tears.

The measure was intended to protect the homeless, who may have less access to health care or be more at risk of complications if they develop foodborne illnesses, Michan said.

Red Herring

“It’s a red herring,” Randall Kallinen, a civil rights lawyer in Houston who has organized opposition to the city’s plans, said in an interview. “They can’t provide one example where someone got injured or sick. This is really a way to push homeless out of downtown.”

Targeting people and groups who try to share food with the homeless has become more common, according to a 2010 report by the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Limits on sharing food outdoors grew as the economic collapse in 2008 led to more demand for meals. There are restrictions on sharing food in at least 23 towns and cities in the U.S., according to the report.

New York City prohibits private donations of food to homeless shelters as part of a policy partly aimed at ensuring meals are nutritious.

New York Shelters

The Homeless Services Department has rules about food preparation going beyond nutritional standards the city set in 2009, and updated in 2011, said Samantha Levine, a spokeswoman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

“We are regulated by the state in the provision and delivery of food to homeless people in our shelter system and those regulations are very specific and written to ensure safety and proper distribution of food to homeless people,” said Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for Homeless Services. “There is very little opportunity for people to come in with food from outside, and that’s how it’s always been.”

The safety measures can be an important public health protection as long as they don’t restrict access to food or the rights of the homeless, Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said in an interview.

Good Samaritan Laws

“The only thing worse than being homeless is being homeless on the street with a stomach infection,” said Donovan, who supports the intent behind the proposals.

There were 636,017 homeless people in the U.S. in 2011, a 1 percent decrease from 2009, according to the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nonprofit policy group. Urban areas have the highest rate of homelessness, about 29 people per 10,000. Houston has an estimated 10,000 homeless people every night, according to the Beacon, a nonprofit group that provides services to the poor.

U.S. lawmakers have sought to encourage donations to the hungry. Congress passed a good Samaritan food donation act in 1996 under President Bill Clinton to protect businesses, organizations and individuals that donate food from legal liability. All 50 states and Washington, D.C., also have good Samaritan laws that provide additional protection to donors, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The latest city initiatives run counter to a philosophy of helping the homeless, said Heather Johnson, a civil rights attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Do-Gooder Rebellion

“Food-safety restrictions, while well intentioned, make it more difficult for groups to share food and may make it harder for the homeless to get meals,” Johnson said in an interview. “We’re seeing more cities and municipalities adopting these kinds of regulations.”

Philadelphia’s mayor last week instructed the parks department to issue a regulation in 30 days banning outside feeding in all city parks, with exceptions for picnics and permitted events. A temporary food distribution location at City Hall will be set up for groups to provide food to the homeless, according to a press release.

The regulations would apply to Jenkins’s site along the parkway, a mile-long scenic boulevard that connects City Hall to just near the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Jenkins, who currently feeds the homeless indoors because of the winter season, plans to resume his ministry’s outdoor program in May.

Jenkins called Nutter’s plan an “attack on the poor” and expects to fight, even if that means violating a ban.

“You can’t regulate someone doing good,” Jenkins said.