Thursday, March 29, 2007

Cities set limits on serving food to homeless people

By Emily Bazar, USA TODAY

Cities are cracking down on charities that feed the homeless, adopting rules that restrict food giveaways to certain locations, require charities to get permits or limit the number of free meals they can provide.
Orlando, Dallas, Las Vegas and Wilmington, N.C.,
began enforcing such laws last year. Some are being challenged.

Last November, a federal judge blocked the Las Vegas law banning food giveaways to the poor in city parks. In Dallas, two ministries are suing, arguing that the law violates religious freedom.

"Going after the volunteers is new," says Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "They think that by not feeding people, it will make the homeless people leave."

City officials say the rules were prompted by complaints about crime and food safety. Some say they want control over locations so homeless people can also get services such as addiction counseling and job training.

"The feedings were happening several times a week" in parking lots and sidewalks downtown, says Dewey Harris, director of Wilmington's Community Services Department. "A lot of the merchants said, 'We feel uncomfortable when you have all these homeless being fed downtown when we're trying to attract tourists.' "

Last March, the city restricted meals on public property to designated locations and required a permit. One spot has been approved: a city park parking lot.

Dallas also limits outdoor food giveaways to approved locations. Those distributing food must take a food-handling course and get a city permit, says Karen Rayzer, director of environmental and health services. A violator can be fined $2,000.

Orlando adopted an ordinance in July that requires a permit to serve more than 25 people in a park within 2 miles of City Hall,
where most food giveaways were taking place. An applicant may serve twice a year in each park.

"This ordinance wasn't established to ban feeding," says city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh. She acknowledges that some groups ignore the law.

City Commissioner Robert Stuart voted against it. He is executive director of the Christian Service Center for Central Florida, which feeds 325 homeless people a day but, as private property, is not affected.

"It's not fair to take a population without a home and make them criminals," he says. "And I don't think we ought to be limiting the opportunity to help others."

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