A ban on outdoor feeding of the homeless in Philadelphia's parks is part of a broader strategy to combat homelessness, not an attempt to hide them from a tourist area where many of the city's most popular museums are located, Mayor Michael Nutter testified in federal court Tuesday.
Nutter defended the ban during about 90 minutes on the stand before a federal judge, saying it's also necessary to prevent the spread of any food-borne illnesses that could result from improper handling by well-meaning church groups. He also argued that many of the people being fed need more than just food, citing their need for services to help with substance abuse problems and mental health issues.
"For me, this is not just about a hungry individual," Nutter said. "They are not just hungry. They have other needs."
Four religious groups have challenged the ban, saying it infringes on their rights to freely assemble and practice their religion. Large groups of the city's homeless regularly gather on a stretch of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for food distribution, something the mayor said he's seen for years on his way to and from work. Nutter said outdoor feedings stretch city parks' resources and make it harder for social service agencies to reach the homeless.
"The challenge is that many of the individuals being served need more than a meal," he said, adding that those issues can be better dealt with at public and private facilities — not at feeding stations.
U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. scheduled more oral arguments for Thursday. Chief Deputy Solicitor Craig Straw said the city would not enforce the ban before Yohn rules.
Under the city's plan, groups would be allowed to temporarily feed the homeless in a designated space near City Hall. That space, Nutter testified, has water and public toilets and would serve as a transitional location as more homeless are directed to four private indoor feeding locations downtown.
"It is not true that we don't have adequate facilities for indoor food services," he said.
Critics claim the city is trying to push the homeless away from the parkway that stretches from City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A number of other museums, including the newly opened Barnes Foundation museum and the Rodin Museum, line the parkway.
Paul Messing, an attorney for plaintiffs, argued that there have been no reports of food-borne illnesses related to the parkway feedings and said the organizations conducting them don't just offer food.
Others who have done feedings on the parkway also testified that they have had fewer people attend the feedings since they've moved to the designated space by City Hall and that it has been more difficult for them to establish personal connections with them.
"These programs are providing more than just food," Messing said.
City recreation officials also testified that the public feedings in the parks were putting additional strain on parks department resources as city workers are forced to clean up resulting human waste, litter and rodents. After the feedings, the areas "become public toilets," said Christopher Palmer, director of operations and landscape management for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Under the ban, violators can be punished by $150 fines. -- (AP)