[ the public square ]
It's been a long week since Mayor Michael Nutter announced a new city regulation banning "outdoor feeding" — a funny phrase (one not of the mayor's invention) that refers to the giving of food to human beings, not pigeons — in city parks. The context, though not mentioned in Nutter's announcement, was obvious: For at least two decades, volunteer groups have showed up regularly on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to distribute meals to whomever shows up to eat them, mostly homeless people.
A couple weeks earlier, the city's Board of Health had proposed its own rule requiring that anyone distributing food get permits, pass inspections and meet certain health standards — some obvious in their practicality (they'd have to wear gloves) and others not so much (they'd have to submit menus in advance).
Even less obvious — or much more, depending on how you look at it — is the timing of all of this: The Board of Health hasn't mentioned a single instance of foodborne illness in those who receive meals from these volunteers. The mayor has characterized his move as "increasing the health, safety, dignity and support for those vulnerable individuals" who, "regardless of their station in life, should be able to sit down at a table to a meal — inside."
But he has so far offered no funding, no plan and no vision for how that might be accomplished (several indoor meal programs have, in fact, vanished over the past few years). Instead, the mayor offered the apron of City Hall as a temporary one-year site for "feeding" — a move that could either be interpreted as generous or as evidence of a less charitable underlying desire: to move the homeless off the Parkway before the Barnes re-opens at its new museum site May 19. (Even Project H.O.M.E.'s Sister Mary Scullion, who stood next to the mayor when he announced the policy, told City Paper, "Of course this is totally about the Barnes.")
Now a revolt is under way. By the morning after the announcement, several members of City Council — Kenyatta Johnson, Cindy Bass and Jannie Blackwell — were criticizing the mayor's policy on the Council floor. Blackwell was particularly irate: She blasted the policy as "negative" and urged the mayor to invest more in the city's shelter system. (In fact, the mayor has proposed allocating an additional $1 million to the Office of Supportive Housing, which runs the city's homeless programs, but that's in the face of possible millions of dollars in cuts from the state.)
A much louder outcry came from outside City Hall, where a smoldering forest fire of opposition has united anarchists and church groups, and just might have roused Occupy Philly from its winter lull. A March 15 Board of Health meeting saw more than 100 people from different walks of life amass outside the Municipal Services Building to testify against the board's rule and, by proxy, the mayor's regulation as well. When officials announced only 40 people would be let in at a time, the crowd morphed into a full-on protest. Inside the meeting, Caroline Steinberg of the North Philly chapter of Food Not Bombs, an activist group that serves free vegetarian meals, pointed out — rather effectively, in a time of dwindling resources — that her group provides a service that "doesn't cost [the city] a dime."
Brian Jenkins, head of the religious coalition Chosen 300 Ministries, which runs outdoor and indoor meal programs for more than 300 people per day, was blunt: "We are not leaving," he told the board. "This is not about a health issue. This is about getting homeless off the Parkway."
All this leaves the mayor in an awkward place indeed. In his announcement, the mayor said he had "created a working group of external stakeholders" to come up with a long-term solution — but that group turned out to have no members yet, and the mayor seems to have alienated many potential stakeholders. His seeming alliance with Project H.O.M.E., meanwhile, is not a given. Scullion told CP she supports the mayor's policy only if it increases in resources for the homeless, a position shared by the Rev. Bill Golderer of Broad Street Ministries, which seeks to expand its popular indoor meal program to nine meals a week.
So far, the mayor has not made it clear what, if anything, he has to offer resource-wise. Meanwhile, he's laid out a one-month timeline for clearing feeding off the Parkway — and a one-year timeline for implementing a solution that, as of now, is entirely unknown.