On Tuesday, the city found itself facing a federal lawsuit over Mayor Michael Nutter’s ban on the serving of food outdoors in city parks — a measure aimed rather obviously at the feeding of (mostly) homeless people that’s taken place on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for years.
The suit, filed by the civil-rights law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and attorney Seth Kreimer, alleges that the mayor’s ban denies the plaintiffs — a mix of religious groups and individuals who’ve been serving meals on the Parkway — their rights to free speech and freedom of religion. It also lays out a scathing critique of the mayor’s policy. Take, for example, this tidbit from the complaint:
“While the Mayor claims that the new policy was intended to advance the ‘dignity’ of the homeless,” the City Hall apron, the mayor’s proposed alternative site, “is surrounded by heavy traffic at all hours, the surface is comprised of concrete slabs, the construction at Dilworth Plaza produces noise and dust throughout the day, and there are few places to sit.”
Ouch! But that’s not the only sting the mayor’s policy has received. Last week, in a hearing by City Council’s Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development & the Homeless, the mayor’s policy was scorned not only by those we might have expected to scorn it, but also by Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project H.O.M.E., who had appeared at the mayor’s side when he announced the ban. At the time, Scullion told CP that her support was contingent on the mayor’s providing more resources for the homeless. In a letter read by a representative at the Council hearing, Scullion said, “The reality is that the proposed indoor dining centers are not yet in place. … Therefore we cannot support the ban on outdoor meals at this time.”
The present disorder perhaps reflects the haste with which the policy was announced. The mayor’s ban was unveiled with virtually no prior input from or notice to the groups it most closely affected. Then weeks went by before a task force was appointed to come up with ideas for more indoor meals; some of its members are now among the plaintiffs suing the city. Of all the things to be in a hurry about right now — including serious impending cuts by the state to our homeless programs — maybe it’s time to rethink this one.