Why I Support Regulating the Public Feeding of Homeless People

Several years ago in Atlanta, Georgia I met a woman living under a bridge that completely changed my life and how I viewed homeless services. You didn’t have to be a social service worker or medical professional to see that Angela was dying underneath that bridge. Meeting Angela broke my heart but it was what happened behind the scenes that changed me. I was with a group of Christians. I turned to them and I asked, “What are you doing for her? How are you helping Angela?” They responded that they were bringing her sandwiches – that’s when I realized that sandwiches are not enough. People need housing, jobs, and health services.

See, until I met Angela underneath the bridge that day, I thought that whatever you could do to help a homeless person, well, just do it. Let’s just say the level of your support was making chocolate chip cookies. If you can make cookies, then go and make cookies and then hand them out to people. I used to think that was good enough. The reason I use a chocolate chip cookie reference is because I used to know a mom and her daughter that made cookies, because that’s all they can afford. They would then go to a local homeless shelter and hand them out. And that’s the point. Instead of randomly giving away food in a park, this mother and daughter team went to the local shelter with their homemade cookies, supporting the local shelter in helping people.

I once spent two hours In Tompkins Square Park in the East Village of New York City. During those two hours, five churches came and fed the same people. I am guessing that if I stayed most the afternoon over twenty churches would have come and fed the same people that day. Interesting enough, the Bowery Rescue Mission is right around the corner. If all of those churches had taken their food to the Bowery Rescue Mission (also the same Jesus) the Bowery Rescue Mission could have saved on their food budget and spent the money saved on housing, jobs, and health services.

I realize it’s not as sexy to stand up in front of the church folk on Sunday morning saying that you “helped another organization” rather than saying “you fed the lost.” But the truth is, if churches would simply coordinate and work with other organizations, together we’d make a serious impact in fighting homelessness and getting people off the streets.

I will be point blank honest – public feedings often do more harm than good. Yes, it makes the person giving the food feel especially good, and there is merit in that; we should feel good about our charitable works. But public feedings do very little to end homelessness. In fact, in many ways public feedings maintain homelessness.

When I was producing a weekly TV show on homelessness, we were featuring a ministry that fed people under a bridge. We met a large homeless man with an established camp under a bridge to interview. The man’s name was “Bear”, and he had clearly been there for quite some time. He had a few tents and the camp layout was setup rather nicely. After I got the video gear ready and Bear’s dog to be quiet, I started to ask him questions. The optimum goal I needed was for this man to talk about how he’d go hungry if this ministry didn’t bring him food. I asked “So Bear, if Billy didn’t bring you food what would happen to you? Bear’s response shocked me. He said, “Well, the nuns bring me breakfast every day, and those guys in the warehouse over there give me a burrito at lunch.” You just had to look at Bear to see he wasn’t going hungry and now, out of his own mouth, he told us proof that we were enabling him (and others) to remain homeless.

Now please realize that I understand that there are lots of people going hungry in this great country of ours. I get that. The point that I am trying to make is that just feeding people in a park can actually hurt homeless people more than it helps them. Food is a powerful motivator. Many homeless services provide food, mail services, showers and laundry, which are touch point services so our homeless friends can visit and connect with us on a regular basis. Often we can begin to establish relationships that will help that person get out of homelessness. In addition, our homeless friends often have medical needs that go unattended. By having to connect with a homeless services agency every so often, if a homeless person is hurt, a case manager can help that person connect to needed services. Like with Bear, when people are merely given food in the park, there is little motivation for them to connect with places that can help. It’s actually OK to feed people in a park as long as you’re also taking tangible actions to help them get out of homelessness.

Restaurant Cleanliness: BMuch of my work is based on the belief that homeless people should be treated like everyone else. We are all people! I can’t speak for your community, but here in Los Angeles, restaurants are graded. Often you’ll see a big ‘A’ in a window and occasionally a ‘B’. The rating lets consumers know the food is healthy and prepared using sanitary conditions. For me, it’s important that the food I buy in a grocery store is inspected. Heck, even that hotdog vendor on the street has to be licensed and inspected to sell food. But there is no regulation on public feeding to homeless people – and there should be!

Whenever a community tries to pass laws to govern or ban public feeding, all the homeless advocates come out and scream about how such a ban would be wrong. However, if they really had the best interest of everyone, they would support public feeding regulations. Seriously, it’s a heath and public safety issue! In St Louis, years ago, I heard about a few college kids going around putting feces in sandwiches and giving them out to homeless people. As sick as that is, at the time, public feeding was not regulated so there were no laws to stop such abuse. Many faith based groups receive food donations after the food is expired and cannot be legally sold. Much of the food is still fine, but churches often do not have the proper storage facilities, so the donated food quickly gets worse. If public feeding is not regulated, then anyone can feed anything to our homelessness friends. To me, that is simply unacceptable.

I have also watched churches leave public parks in a complete mess, with trash everywhere. Often times faith based groups will pull up in their vans and open the doors to feed people. The areas that the feedings take place become trashed quickly. And let’s be very real here – homeless people will congregate where there are public feedings. As a formerly homeless person and someone who has given their life to help homeless people, I don’t want to be panhandled when I am walking through a park – and neither do you! I’d honestly love to see the people who are so strongly advocating for keeping public feedings unregulated to simply invite all our homeless friends over to their house to eat. But the truth is that they don’t want our friends in their neighborhoods – just in yours!

NOW PLEASE HEAR ME! I am not asking everyone to not feed hungry people. What I am saying is that we should also coordinate with other services to form a community effort to help get people out of homelessness. The agency where I work has “guest chefs” come in every night to cook meals. It is a ‘win-win situation’ as the guest chef gets to interconnect with homeless people and also do good works , while our agency also saves the funds they would have spent on food to instead spend on helping people find housing, jobs, and health services. There are many opportunities like this where working as a team with a local homeless service provider, your donations and time could have the greatest impact.

Perhaps the biggest need for food that often goes completely overlooked is found in low income or no income people that are housed. If your church, Rotary Club, or Girl Scout Troop wants to feed people and really make a difference, connect with a local organization that is housing people. Once a person is housed, they have very little money for food. These days I have seen a huge increase of people who are not homeless that have taken up panhandling simply because they do not have enough money to get by. If a person is on disability after they pay rent, they are often left with a few hundred dollars for utilities, bus passes, clothes, food and everything else. It’s never enough and food is what’s usually skimped on. This really is probably the biggest crisis of food insecurity in the United States.

I will never agree with any law that discriminates against anyone for any reason. But when it comes to public safety, I support regulating public feedings. We all want our food healthy and inspected; well, it should be the same for our homeless friends too.

If you’re feeding people randomly in a park, I challenge you to think differently and start networking with others in your community. Your efforts should go to helping people have a better life and not inadvertently maintaining homelessness. It is fine to feed people in a park as long as you are also doing something to get them out of that park!

 

 

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photo by: Ed Yourdon
  • http://www.facebook.com/kikidahlke Kiki Coll Dahlke

    I don’t completely agree with the author’s view that
    regulating the public feeding of the homeless is necessary to ultimately help
    this population, nor do I agree that one’s level of service must be of certain
    standard, declared by the author, in order to do good.  Though I agree with points made regarding
    working more closely as a community with agencies/organizations specific to
    homeless services, to make a wider, more efficient impact on said problems, it
    does not warrant the dismissal of those offering “immediate need” service, like
    handing out a meal. They do not need to work against each other, as the author
    suggest. Of course, the bigger picture is to make this population self–sufficient, but
    regulating or banning public feeding will most likely have little to no effect
    on accomplishing this goal.

    For the author to suggest that the food servers
    are “enablers” is to suggest that lack of
    motivation is the primary enforcer of homelessness, not socioeconomic status,
    drug/alcohol addiction, mental illness, or human trafficking, none of which are
    mentioned. We need to ask our government why over 50% of the population on Los
    Angeles’ Skid Row are Veterans?  Veterans
    from WWII to Afghanistan, released from duty and forgotten.  Why are the mentally ill neglected and wandering
    the city streets?  Why has the United
    States spent billions on the “war on drugs” while the streets are littered with
    homeless addicts?

    What the author fails to recognize or give credit
    to is the idea that when individuals look into the eyes of another individual
    and hand them a meal or offer conversation we begin to humanize the problem. We
    begin to see that person not as a homeless person, but just as a person. We
    need to hear the stories, feel their journey, see the reality; we must be
    willing to get our hands dirty. This will be the motivation to do more. The problems
    of the homeless are neither new nor uncomplicated.  Just another point of view.

    Mother Teresa 
    …“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with
    great love.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/kikidahlke Kiki Coll Dahlke

    I don’t completely agree with the author’s view that
    regulating the public feeding of the homeless is necessary to ultimately help
    this population, nor do I agree that one’s level of service must be of certain
    standard, declared by the author, in order to do good.  Though I agree with points made regarding
    working more closely as a community with agencies/organizations specific to
    homeless services, to make a wider, more efficient impact on said problems, it
    does not warrant the dismissal of those offering “immediate need” service, like
    handing out a meal. They do not need to work against each other, as the author
    suggest. Of course, the bigger picture is to make this population self–sufficient, but
    regulating or banning public feeding will most likely have little to no effect
    on accomplishing this goal.

    For the author to suggest that the food servers
    are “enablers” is to suggest that lack of
    motivation is the primary enforcer of homelessness, not socioeconomic status,
    drug/alcohol addiction, mental illness, or human trafficking, none of which are
    mentioned. We need to ask our government why over 50% of the population on Los
    Angeles’ Skid Row are Veterans?  Veterans
    from WWII to Afghanistan, released from duty and forgotten.  Why are the mentally ill neglected and wandering
    the city streets?  Why has the United
    States spent billions on the “war on drugs” while the streets are littered with
    homeless addicts?

    What the author fails to recognize or give credit
    to is the idea that when individuals look into the eyes of another individual
    and hand them a meal or offer conversation we begin to humanize the problem. We
    begin to see that person not as a homeless person, but just as a person. We
    need to hear the stories, feel their journey, see the reality; we must be
    willing to get our hands dirty. This will be the motivation to do more. The problems
    of the homeless are neither new nor uncomplicated.  Just another point of view.

    Mother Teresa 
    …“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with
    great love.”

  • David Noel

    Kiki said it much better than I could. The word “enabler” is a mean word in some ways. Most times when this word comes up, something bad is about to happen.

  • b2blog

    Taken to a slightly more granular level, this is also a problem with pan-handling. Is the guy I hand a buck to taking in $200 a day, or $20? Is his proximity to a tourist trap a sign of cunning, or a sign of desperation? What will they use the money for? If we could donate to a group supporting him, and it would be distributed in some fair way, in your example, Mark.

  • http://hardlynormal.com hardlynormal

     Hi,

    The cure for panhandling is getting people off the streets. I really don’t think about the revenue someone is making because on the average it’s very small. I mean, those that make large amounts, and I am sure there are some, and normally cons and not even homeless. The homeless people I know make very little and if they have a good day at least can get into a hotel.

    That all said, you’re right. I encourage people to donate to support services first. But there are times when I meet a person and break open my wallet.

    I have never liked the model of installing coin meters in areas. In Atlanta I heard people call them “bum meters” 

  • Isaiah 55

    Ok… so let me enlighten you my friend.
     With all due respect, yer debate: “public” feeding vs supporting feeding stations, is mostly mute to someone whose been homeless. I would like for you to consider that what you consider a hopeful nation where funds are not embezzled and horded, by over funded govt. ran community svcs, but that actually make a difference,, well, to me is like not facing the truth.  I have learned to give based on the Bible story where the savior said give to all who ask. Give because He instructed us to. I don’t need any other justification.  It’s not about my personal feelings.  It’s about obedience and gaining divine understanding of the nature of God. Acting noble in any other way doesn’t get it!  Personal giving needs to practiced and practiced until it becomes a pleasure, yep  I give for that reason alone.  I don’t necessarily care if they sleep in a park or on a bench.  I never yell at homeless man,”Get a job you bum!” or the likes. I have taken them 1 at a time and helped them  and learned from them.  Some of their experiences,, well reality is more fascinating then fiction. Please  let’s give to all who ask, and see what the Lord may impart to us,, a golden apple that never tarnishes.

  • blip_blip

    Doesn’t this article erroneously assume that given the chance, all homeless people want to re-engage with the system, and that they are just ‘down on their luck’.

    All the homeless people I’ve worked with are there because they have a great deal of trouble with fitting into the system, or getting on with other people – and a shelter or mission is just an extension of those things.

    Public feeding allows them to stay outside anyone else’s system. The help they should be getting is with mental health, but given it’s barbaric practices of ‘containment by drugging’ I don’t blame anyone for wanting to avoid it.

  • William Tarbush

    I have little confidence in public inspections or the need to get people off the streets when many don’t want to be off the streets. Panhandling isn’t cured by ending homelessess. Poverty and Panhandling go hand in hand but don’t preclude homelessness. Here, in Tucson, many panhandle around their houses but they are poor. Not homeless.

  • None

    Ah.. bullocks.  I purposely avoid giving to organizations like the Salvation Army and other “help” groups. I give directly to the homeless on the street, money, food, a beer, whatever I have. Typically what I see in these organizations is a lot of nannying, control freaking and bullying of the homeless and I do not feel that I need a middle man to distribute my alms to the poor. Good day sir.