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)
A temporary injunction blocking the city from enforcing Mayor Michael Nutter’s ban on feeding the homeless outdoors is disappointing, Nutter told reporters Thursday, after a federal judge said homeless advocates could keep serving outdoor meals while the court studied the matter.
“Certainly, we are disappointed,” Nutter told reporters at a press conference in the corridor outside his office, adding that the injunction was a “preliminary, preliminary” ruling and that in the end, he hoped the judge would side with the administration.
U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn issued the injunction Thursday, saying it would stay in place until he issued a final ruling.
The injunction came after Yohn heard two days of testimony, some from Nutter himself — as homeless advocates tried to get the court to permanently set aside Nutter’s ban.
Asked if the city would appeal any judicial ruling against enforcement, the mayor deferred to City Solicitor Shelley Smith, who said it was far too early to discuss that possibility.
“We’re not there yet,” Smith said.
The mayor issued the ban on outdoor serving in March, and the city started enforcing it on June 1. It provoked four groups — Chosen 300 Ministries, the Welcome Church, the King’s Jubilee and Philly Restart — to sue.
The mayor has characterized the ban as a way to draw the homeless to indoor facilities and places where, he said, they can receive more comprehensive assistance.
“We are not deterred at all in our efforts to meet the many challenges that people face when they are homeless,” the mayor said.
Opponents have characterized it as a way for the administration to keep the homeless away from the museum district at a time when the new Barnes Foundation was opening along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway — and as an infringement on religious freedom.
According to the Rev. Brian Jenkins, pastor of Chosen 300 Ministries, the policy was a violation of civil rights.
“Separate but equal was abolished in 1954,” he told Council members in April as he pressed members to stand against the ban.
Nutter said his concerns are primarily for the health and welfare of the homeless, but that he felt large scale feeding along the parkway was inappropriate — and he stuck to that position this week.
“Because of the amount of trash and debris and often leftover food, unfortunately, sometimes public defecation and urination … that causes almost the inability of the many other people who wish to use that space of utilizing it,” he said.
Yohn made it clear this week that he planned to block the ban for at least a year in order to give the city and advocates a chance to work out a solution without the court.
When first confronted with opposition to his ban, Nutter appointed a task force on feeding the homeless. Hopes are that the task force will develop a plan to encourage those who are hungry and current outdoor servers to move indoors.
Nutter said this week that he expected the group’s report within the 30 to 60 days and that it would be used as a “basis on how we move forward.”