Food Providers for Homeless Fight Against Restrictions

In Philadelphia, like many cities, advocates for the homeless are fighting bans on providing meals in outdoor spaces.

Posted: 12/03/2013 04:01 PM EST

On most Saturdays, Brian Jenkins sets up tables in a Philadelphia park and serves meals to the city’s homeless population as part of his church’s mission. Jenkins, the pastor and executive director of Chosen 300 Ministries, does not take the Saturday meal service for granted, particularly after city officials sought to ban his church from providing food to homeless people in a public space.

The meal service for the homeless occurs on a stretch of park space along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, not far from such prime tourist destinations as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the new Barnes Museum as well as a number of luxury condominiums. Last year, the city attempted to end the practice of providing meals to homeless in the public parks. A judge issued an injunction against the city's plan, which allowed the food programs to continue.

As Philadelphia now waits to see what will happen next with regard to the long-term plans for providing meals to the homeless, it's just one city where government officials have worked to clamp down on providing meals to homeless people in public spaces. Los Angeles is also considering a ban, similar to others that have already been enacted or considered in Seattle, Orlando and Raleigh.

“There is an effort around the country to drive homeless people out of downtown areas because there is a polarization between the needs of the tourism and development industries and the needs of poor people,” said Michael Stoops, the director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, speaking with BET.com.

“It’s a criminalization of the homeless that's similar to racial profiling,” Stoops said. “It’s economic profiling. And it’s happening all over the country.”

The issue is of predominant importance to Chosen 300 Ministries, a church whose mission is largely to provide services to the homeless population in Philadelphia.

“We serve a population that is poor, homeless and impoverished,” Jenkins said, in an interview with BET.com. “There has been a growing intolerance of those who are poor in this country. I’m not against residential development, but there are people who have lived in communities who are getting pushed out because their areas have become too expensive to live in. And many wind up homeless. It’s important that these people continue to be served and that there are people to try to meet their needs.”

While Jenkins’ church and others provide meals in indoor spaces, they insist that many homeless are far more comfortable eating in open areas and parks.

“There are some people who have a fear of being in an indoor place with a lot of people,” he said. “We want to be able to accommodate people as best we can and to provide them with meals in an environment where they feel comfortable.”

His ministry serves more than 100,000 meals a year to a homeless population that is roughly 85 percent African-American, Jenkins said.

Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael A. Nutter, has said that he is sympathetic to the desire to provide meals to the homeless, but said that it would be best for them to eat in an indoor environment where they can sit down without being affected by extreme weather.

“As a Black man, it is painful personally to me to walk up and down the parkway and see hundreds of people — many of whom are also African-American males — standing in 90-some-degree heat and 20-degree cold, standing in the rain around in long lines, just trying to get a sandwich,” Nutter said, on a local radio interview. “We can do better as a city. We can do better as a society.”

Whether that will soon happen is something eagerly watched in Philadelphia and beyond.

“The truth of the matter is that the city needs to eradicate homelessness rather than seeking to prevent the homeless from getting fed outdoors in these high tourist areas,” said Rev. Derrick Brennan, pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church in Philadelphia, in an interview with BET.com. The church participates in a program where homeless people are served meals.

Jenkins echoed that view, saying that cities need to do more to provide employment and low-cost housing to their poor citizens.

“The cities continue to do this Band-Aid approach to homelessness,” Jenkins said. “Instead of solving the problem, they want to push the homeless out of view. I don’t see the war ending anytime soon.”

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(Photo: REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

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