Council urged to block mayor’s recent order
Mayor Michael Nutter may have bitten off more than he can chew with his new ban on feeding the homeless in public parks. Opponents of the policy, enacted last month, flooded City Council’s meeting Thursday to ask council to somehow block the ban.
They accused the mayor of trying to curtail their religious freedom, their civil rights and of contradicting the teachings of Christ. Nutter, citing health and sanitary concerns, and worries about personal dignity and access to services, recently announced a policy that bans large scale feeding of the homeless in public parks. It forces food donors to serve meals indoors — at places where the homeless may also have access to the services many of them need.
No one who spoke at Thursday’s council meeting supported the mayor.
“Would it be sanitary, would it give dignity to have homeless people eat out of trash cans and dumpsters?” asked Veronica Joyner, founder of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, where students are required to help feed the homeless as part of the school’s curriculum.
According to statistics read by Joyner to council members, there are about 13,000 homeless people in Philadelphia. Joyner noted that many are veterans and have substance abuse problems.
Joyner and about 10 of her students were part of a group of more than 30 people, many of whom brought their Bibles and quoted from them, who signed up to speak during the meeting.
All of the speakers supported Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s call for council to hold hearings on how the policy would affect the homeless. Many wanted council to go a step further and block the policy.
Blackwell introduced a resolution two weeks ago calling for hearings on the issue. A vote was expected Thursday. But, as the meeting started to take on the air of a church service, complete with one man — Reggie Marrow — singing during his allotted time, Council President Darrell Clarke, after a quiet sidebar with Blackwell, ended all speeches on the topic.
“We get your point,” Clarke said.
In the end, Blackwell held the resolution, delaying a vote for at least one more week.
“We decided to hold it such that if we wanted to amend it, or can work out some compromise, that we get another opportunity to do that,” she told reporters after the meeting.
It was a move that will also keep the pressure on the mayor.
“Certainly as long as it’s on the calendar, the public has the right to come and say what they think,” she said.
The mayor’s s office said the policy is not official and wouldn’t be until after administration hearings.
“The Parks and Recreation Commissioner will have a hearing in the near future on the proposed regulation,” said Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald. “Thereafter there is a process lasting a number of weeks before the reg is official … the administration … will be creating a taskforce of stakeholders to work toward bringing all outdoor food serving into more dignified and safer indoor settings.”
If Blackwell’s resolution passes, council’s Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless will hold hearings on the impact of the ban. What steps she might take after that depend on the findings.
Council cannot compel the mayor to rescind his policy, Blackwell noted, but hearings would increase political pressure on the mayor to rethink it.
According to the Rev. Brian Jenkins, pastor of Chosen 300 Ministries, coalition of churches across the city has been formed to oppose the policy.
The group takes exception to Nutter’s policy on several grounds.
Jenkins said it was a violation of civil rights.
“Separate but equal was abolished in 1954,” he said.
For Erica Moulinier, it stepped on her right to worship freely.
“It creates bureaucratic barriers to compassion,” she said. “For many of us, feeding is not only an act of compassion, but an act of faith.”
Adam Bruckner, founder of Philly Restart, a group dedicated to feeding the homeless, even took offense to the mayor’s choice of words – when Nutter announced the new policy he used the phrase “outdoor feeding.”
Feeding is for farms,” Bruckner said. “We serve meals.”
One man tied the new rule to the opening of the new Barnes Foundation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
“It really looks like an attempt to hide the homeless,” said Brett Anderson, who then quoted the Bible. “For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat.”
Nutter announced the ban in mid-March. At the time, he also said the administration would come up with a new, long-term approach to feeding the hungry within 90 days.
The mayor pitched the policy as one centered on public health and safety concerns, and as way to assist people needing food and shelter.
“Aside from the dignity provided by sitting down at a given time in a given place for a nutritious meal, an indoor location enables the city and its partners to offer health, mental health, housing, a place to receive mail and other needed services to this very vulnerable population,” Nutter said at the time.
Nutter added that until the many groups that feed the homeless outside and those that have indoor facilities can coordinate their activities, the outdoor groups can feed people on the apron at city hall.
Large scale feeding, which used to happen in Love Park and on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Family Court building have been moved to the apron.
In other news, council passed resolutions honoring fallen firefighters Lt. Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney, who were killed Monday while fighting a fire in an empty warehouse in Kensington. Both men were killed after a wall in an adjacent building collapsed on them.
Council unanimously passed a resolution honoring the memory and service of each man with a standing vote.
Finally, council also passed a resolution “calling for justice” in the Trayvon Martin case.
The resolution, introduced by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown two weeks ago, passed just one day after Martin’s accused killer George Zimmerman was arrested, and 45 days after the incident that resulted in Martin’s death.
“Two weeks ago … we did not know whether the family would ever see this day,” Brown said. “We now know they will be given their day in court. We will all be given the opportunity to find out just what happened on Feb. 25.”