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Picking on the Homeless

In recent weeks, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and the department of health in the city have been championing regulations that would prohibit outdoor distribution of food to the homeless. This seems like the worst of big government intervening with sweeping legislation to solve an occasional problem. I thought I would share the following thoughtful response from The Simple Way.

On March 14, 2012 Mayor Michael Nutter announced a plan to ban “outdoor feeding” in the City of Philadelphia. In effect this would make it illegal to share or distribute food in public places without a permit.

We understand that there are some concerns from the Board of Health regarding health and safety of the food that groups share with the homeless. We are glad to see energy devoted to classes that educate and equip groups in food preparation, storage, and distribution so they can more carefully feed folks who are hungry. We share the desire of the Mayor and Health Department that folks eat in dignified settings. We echo the Mayor’s dream that every person be able to have a nutritious meal sitting around a dinner table, and we look forward to the day when homelessness and poverty are history. But homelessness and poverty are not yet history. They are a reality facing many of our brothers and sisters and fellow Philadelphians.

It is certainly appropriate for the City to intervene when there are specific groups that are sharing food in a way that is unsafe, unsanitary, or irresponsible. However, a citywide ban on food sharing is neither a necessary nor a sensible response to these exceptional cases. We are deeply concerned that these new regulations and policies – and the Mayor’s ban on sharing food – do more harm than good. They create bureaucratic barriers to compassion.

The very name of our City comes from the Greek words “phileo”, meaning “I love”, and “adelphos”, meaning “brother” – hence the “City of Brotherly Love”. Phileo is one of the three Greek words for love, and it describes the kind of deep love that brothers and sisters have for each other.  We hope our City lives up to its name.  We are committed to making sure that it does.

The proposed regulations suggest the requirement of permits when providing food for more than three persons, and other unreasonable requirements, such as providing a menu of food to be served as far as a year in advance. Our fear is that these regulations specifically target and will be selectively enforced against some of our most vulnerable citizens. It is hard to imagine every barbeque cookout, religious service with a potluck dinner, family reunion, or block party being prohibited from sharing food. Of course, failure to equally enforce this type of legislation would be a clear civil rights violation as well as an act of discrimination. The parks and public spaces of our city should be enjoyed by all citizens, rich or poor.

Sharing food with those who are hungry is a fundamental act of human conscience. The thousands of people who share food in any way, both inside and outside, make the world a better place. The economic challenges facing our nation have awakened in us a sense of solidarity, knowing that there is a fine line between “us” and “them”. Additional cuts in City funding threaten to make such acts of generosity even more necessary. Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor Schwarz has noted that most funds for the City’s human services come from the State, where a new budget threatens to cut $41 million in social service funding, representing a 20% cut, threatening even those services that currently exist – and do so much good.

For many of us, sharing food is not only a matter of conscience, but is also an act of faith, a spiritual practice, an exercise of religious freedom. There are many of us who believe that to be Christian means to be “born again” where we have a new definition of family that runs deeper than biology, making it just as essential to care for those we are biologically unrelated to as those we are. This new legislation potentially makes it illegal for a church youth group to take pizzas to homeless folks in a park, or a family to take the delicious leftovers from a Bar Mitzvah to folks sleeping under a bridge. It is unconscionable.

In the Bible, Jesus even goes so far as to say that when we feed the poor, the “least of these”, we are feeding Christ himself.  When Jesus speaks of the final judgment he says we will be asked by God, “When I was hungry did you feed me?” Can you imagine if our response was, “Sorry God, the city would not give us a permit?”

One of the stories of the Gospel involves Jesus doing a miracle where he takes a few fish and loaves and multiplies them, feeding hundreds of hungry folks.  Jesus didn’t have a health permit to do that outdoor feeding. In fact if Jesus had tried to perform that miracle feeding in Philadelphia under these proposed laws, he would have gotten into serious trouble. Jesus bids us come and follow – feed the poor, care for the hungry. We are not willing to allow unjust policies to be obstacles to love.

Our organization, The Simple Way, started nearly 20 years ago as college students shared food with folks on the street in downtown Philadelphia. Over the years our organization has grown and evolved, but sharing food and resources with those in need continues to be at the core of our mission, and of our faith. In fact, as long as folks are hungry we cannot NOT share.

At various intervals in our history we have faced obstacles to our work, like this current policy. We insist on humbly but persistently interrupting injustice.

Twelve years ago the City began passing anti-homeless regulations and policies very similar to the current food ordinances being enacted by Mayor Nutter and the Board of Health. Hundreds of us voiced our concern about the laws, and dozens of us were arrested for sharing food and sleeping in public. In the end, we won a major victory in court.  In fact, the Philadelphia Judge even declared that those of us who broke the law were not criminals but “freedom fighters”, citing the Boston Tea Party and the Civil Rights movement.

We cannot help but see this current struggle as a new chapter in the story of American activism, which has deep roots right here in Philadelphia.

One of the proverbs of the Civil Rights movement in America was: “Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as cooperation with good.” And it was St. Augustine who said, “An unjust law is no law at all.” This is an unjust law and we are obliged to not comply.

We deeply value dialogue and are convinced we can all do more together than we can on our own. As for this new government policy, we can do better – and we must.

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10 comments on “Picking on the Homeless

  1. If I could, I’d like this multiple times…as is evidenced by my own blog references to it. 🙂

    Prayers are appreciated for this afternoon as we take the first creative steps to “speak” out on this.

  2. Many people take Nutter’s response to negative and/or do not research the total explanation of things. Unlike a lot of the general public, I agree more with Nutter then disagree. I think to as Philadelphians and Americans we CAN and WILL do better for the homeless. The summer is too hot and the winter is too cold for the homeless to be standing and living outside. If Nutter would simply ask organizations to hold it the distributing inside it would never get done, not that it is anyone’s fault. So to make it a “ban” and/or require permit to hold it outside get’s it done faster for lack of better words. I am at a good place to take this stance because I have gone every year to feed the homeless BUT I do so inside. There are many places to hold meals for the homeless inside and there is no exception in my eyes. Many people also look over the fact that he his opening up one of the city hall areas to be used for the homeless so feeding of the homeless is not totally swiped out. As Americans and what the media tells us we look over so many details sometimes and never ask the question “what is good about this” we always, always, always ask “what is the bad in this” and that is all we ever do! WE CAN DO BETTER AND WE WILL DO BETTER. Do the research, listen to Nutter’s whole speech not the mediaized articles. I support Nutter and I will support the homeless. This is not picking on the homeless.

    • No one is saying that feeding the homeless indoors is bad. Nor is anyone saying that we don’t want the homeless to be indoors. The problem lies in the reality of the situation. Many homeless are not staying in shelters, and cannot or will not go to an indoor centralized facility. To say that warm food in the winter CANNOT be taken to the homeless where they are is different than saying we WISH they would come to us. Why make them do the work to come to us? To me, it seems that this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some people don’t take proper precautions, so no one can do it.

      I stand with The Simple Way in suggesting that this ordinance is unjust. I am all for feeding homeless people indoors, and kudos to you for taking the initiative to act on your convictions and participate! I wish more people would do that. Please also read carefully. I don’t think anyone is accusing Nutter of having ill will toward the homeless, or trying to be mean. The accusation is that he has not thought out all of the implications and will actually be harming those he claims to be helping. I don’t find anything in your argument that convinces me that this accusation is unfounded.

      Turning some city hall space into an area to serve the homeless doesn’t address the issue. It seems to me that the indoor facilities are naturally going to be in particular areas, since they are not mobile. What The Simple Way and others are trying to do is be mobile and meet homeless Philadelphians where they are. Wherever there is a need, they want to be able to go there and meet it, rather than asking those with a need to move themselves to a place that is more convenient for us to meet the need.

      Once again, kudos for doing something about the need. I think we need a both/and solution here, not the either/or that the mayor seems to be suggesting. Perhaps we will have to agree to disagree about this.

      • One of the things that I thought and what I took from the press release is that it was only a ban on an organization stationing somewhere outside therefore creating a crazy line that would take forever to feed everyone. I was not aware that this ban includes me personally going to a homeless group and handing out food. So is it correct and true that the ban entitles that to?

      • As I understand it, it applies to groups or individuals. I admit I haven’t read the whole thing word for word, since I don’t know that it is available online anywhere that I could read it. I’ll have an update on this this afternoon. My friend Rob Martin is planning to participate in a rally/food sharing this afternoon around 4:00.

      • I was only curious because I probably misunderstood some of the information. I hope you did not take my post negative. I like getting apart of discussions and hearing other people’s view points! I didn’t want it to come off as if the article was saying Nutter was horrible. I also hope my reply did not come off as yelling at anyone! The good thing about discussions is that you learn if your right or wrong and if I misunderstood something that the “ban” was entitling, I will gladly admit I am wrong. And when I said “Do the research” I was not speaking to this blog I was speaking in terms to the media. Hope you understand and thanks for the replies! I read these quite often when I see them on Facebook.

      • No worries! I appreciate hearing from others. I wasn’t sure if the do the research was pointed at me or the “media”, but I didn’t take offense. I do wonder how the media color our view, at times. I wonder how they will discuss the rally this afternoon. Will they be portrayed as a bunch of hippies, or as caring Christians who want to stand up for the homeless? I don’t watch much media, honestly. Also, living outside of Harrisburg, we don’t always hear about Philly issues. I catch a lot of stuff from friends who live closer to that area. I know you used to live over there. Are you still there now, or are you living with your folks since they moved to Lebanon area?

      • It was definitely not directed towards you or anyone on this page! I stayed behind in Harleysville, Limerick, PA area and attend Tabor UMC. My parents were moved to Lebanon, PA Good Shepherd UMC. I had school to finish off and I have a full time job here in Limerick, PA. I will be moving to Harrisburg (I guess near you) to attend Penn State Harrisburg to finish off my Civil Engineering.

    • By the way I’m not angry! Just getting into a discussion =]

  3. […] I posted about an attempt from The Simple Way to speak to the injustice they see in Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed ordinance basically abolishing […]

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