Less than a week since Raleigh police threatened to arrest church members who tried to feed homeless people near Moore Square Park, the city is taking up the issue today at a Law and Public Safety Committee meeting. Officials are expected to discuss policies for distributing food in public parks and greenways today at 3 p.m. at Raleigh City Hall.
Last Saturday, Raleigh police told members of the ministry Love Wins that they could not distribute breakfast sandwiches to a crowd of more than 70 hungry people in Moore Square, a tradition they've maintained Saturday and Sunday mornings for six years.
"Feeding Homeless People Apparently Illegal in Raleigh, NC," wrote the Rev. Hugh Hollowell, director of Love Wins, in a blog post that has been viewed more than 300,000 times. National news outlets also picked up the story. "I had to face those who were waiting and tell them I could not feed them, or I would be arrested," he wrote.
Jim Sughrue, public affairs director for the Raleigh Police Department, said an ordinance prohibiting the distribution of food without a permit, RCC 9-2022—the one police cited Saturday—has been on the city's books since 1998. The permit costs $800 and liability insurance is also required.
Raleigh City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin, who heads the Law and Public Safety Committee, said it is her understanding that city staff began talking to groups two months ago to let them know that the law would be enforced.
The City of Raleigh released a statement Monday praising Raleigh citizens for their compassion but calling their efforts "not without practical problems for City government."
"Public health and safety issues have arisen due to the large number of groups attempting to feed the less fortunate in Downtown Raleigh," the statement said. "Similar issues are faced by numerous cities across the country when well-intentioned organizations desire to use public property to help."
At least five other U.S. cities—Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Orlando and Las Vegas—have banned or severely restricted the feeding of the homeless in parks and other public spaces.
Baldwin said her goal for the committee meeting is to "start a conversation about how we care for the homeless," and that the discussion goes beyond feeding people at Moore Square.
"My intention is to come up with a better solution that addresses the needs of the homeless but also respects public property," she wrote in an email. "I know there is a better answer than feeding people on the sidewalk at Moore Square."
"My expectation also is that we will stand down on enforcement until we can reach that better conclusion," she added.
On Sunday afternoon, Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and several city council members intervened. They went to Moore Square and overruled police, allowing another group, Food Not Bombs, to distribute food to the homeless.
McFarlane assured Love Wins that the police action Saturday was not on her orders, according to Hollowell.
"She was surprised and upset," Hollowell said. "It ruined her weekend too."
Last Monday morning, a group of men—some homeless, some not, all friends— sat on a stone wall in Moore Square, smoking cigarettes and shouting to each other in indignation.
Reginald, who didn't want to reveal his last name, was among those in Moore Square Saturday morning, hoping to eat. "They want homeless people not to be downtown," Reginald said. "So they're making it inconvenient to be downtown. We rely on the church people. They're making a charitable contribution in a public park, and now they can go to jail for that."
In a statement Sunday, the Raleigh Police Department noted that no arrests were made Saturday and that people were simply informed of the law. "Work is ongoing with those involved, some of whom are developing alternative sites, etc.," the statement said. "Ultimately, the ordinance is a city issue, of course, and when final determinations are made, the police will work with everyone to handle things in the smoothest way possible."
Though several shelters and soup kitchens serve the homeless, many do not operate on weekends. "We love them, the church people," said Louis Shaw, who was on his way to get lunch at the Church of the Good Shepherd on Hillsborough Street. The church runs a popular soup kitchen, The Shepherd's Table, which feeds lunch to approximately 300 people each day, Monday through Friday. The Salvation Army serves an evening meal each weekday to about 150 people.
"They know us, they remember who we are and they feed us," Shaw said. "What else can we do for food? Steal? I'm not going to jail."
The men on the wall agreed: Saturday's incident was Raleigh's latest slight on an already marginalized population.
Reginald said he and other homeless people get in trouble with the Raleigh police, often for minor infractions. "An officer told me, don't let me see you," he said. "He said, 'If I see you, I will arrest you.'"
Shaw said he was cited for drinking water when an officer insisted he was drinking alcohol because a beer can had been discarded nearby.
"It's bigger than the food," said Jarvis Stuart, who is not homeless but is friends with the men. Stuart was sharply dressed in a suit and tie, having arrived fresh off a job interview at the Clarion Hotel. "It's about people who are homeless, and whatever draws attention to homelessness, they want to take away."
Stuart said city leaders need to take a cue from the church community and show more compassion to Raleigh's homeless. "These are hard-working people who care and are genuinely trying to help people. And police tell them they can't. It's cruel to tell homeless people, 'no food.' Life isn't always good for people. Not everyone's mind is right to have jobs. We can't just write those people off like this."
Love Wins will attend today's committee meeting with some of Raleigh's homeless people "because they are the city's constituents," Hollowell said.
"We love Raleigh; we want it to be great," he added. "We hate that we embarrassed Raleigh, or that Raleigh embarrassed itself."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Feeding frenzy."