Because These Are My People and They Deserve To Be Fed – Feeding the Homeless in Public
by Amy Reumann, LAMPa Director
When asked by his disciples to send away the hungry crowds because there was no food, Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” And so 5,000 (give or take a few) were fed outdoors on the grass.
Jesus’ insistence on feeding hungry people where they are is echoed today in the statement: “Why do I keep doing it? Because these are my people and they deserve to be fed.” These are the words of Arnold Abbot, the 90-year-old Florida man who has now received another notice to appear in court for the criminal violation of an ordinance — the third one in nearly two weeks for feeding people in public in Fort Lauderdale. The arrest of Mr. Abbot and others come as a result of an ordinance passed by the city on Oct. 21 that restricted public food sharing. Under the ordinance, organizations distributing food outdoors would have to provide portable toilets for use by workers and those being fed. Some have noted the irony that these laws regarding food sharing were enacted on Halloween, when Floridians were sharing candy with trick or treaters.
Pennsylvania has seen its own cases.
- In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter placed a ban on outdoor feeding programs. A suit was brought by groups who served outdoor meals, including The Welcome Church, a “church without walls” and outreach ministry of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. In a news article about the lawsuit, Pastor Violet Little of The Welcome Church, said, “We know that feeding people on the street is not a permanent solution. But it’s a first step to getting people inside. The thing is, even if they all wanted to come inside, the city doesn’t have enough services to meet their needs. Until it does, what are we supposed to do? Not care for them?” The city’s ban was finally blocked by a federal judge.
- Last year in Harrisburg Isaiah 61 Ministries was barred by the county from serving outdoor meals in proximity to the County Courthouse. The county cited instances of public urination and defecation that led to their posting “no loitering” placards in nearby lots and open spaces that have necessitated the a moving of operations.
Restrictions on food-sharing have been popping up around the country and are detailed in a new report by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Restrictions presume to be an answer to identified problems affecting sanitation, public safety, tourism or the well-being of those who need food. Addressing these legitimate concerns through limiting access to food for people who are homeless is misdirected and short-sighted. People who are hungry, especially those who are homeless, are already at risk from infrequent and often poor nutrition. Criminalizing those on either the serving or the receiving end of meal programs does nothing to address the root causes of homelessness, such as lack of affordable housing, employment and job-training, mental health, addictions. These and other factors require long-term policy solutions that will not be accomplished by banishing meals in public places.
What can you do? Here are a few ideas. Send LAMPa some of yours!
- Be proactive in your community, identifying and connecting with current programs that offer outdoor meals (if you are not already). Find out what their challenges are and how you can help.
- Meet individuals being served by these programs and listen to their stories. What are their underlying needs? What services might they be eligible for? What resources exist to help them?
- Offer prayers for those who experience homeless and those who walk with them in your worship and congregational gatherings.
- Speak with your municipal government, legislator or community leaders about the importance of these programs. Invite them to visit and learn more.
- Consider offering the outdoor meal services a place to come indoors or organizing congregations to offer day centers or other services to get the homeless to home, or support expansion of already existing ones.
- Get involved with LAMPa’s work in affordable housing and homelessness prevention, including our current push to fund the State Housing Trust Fund in all counties.
- Lutheran Day at the Capitol on April 27, 2015 will focus on the theme of Homecoming, working on legislation that will make PA a better home for all. Plan to attend!
Sometimes the objection to these meal ministries seem to be just that they are done in public and in full sight, an attempt to shield onlookers from the reality and suffering of those who have no home and no food. As followers of Jesus, who calls us into a public ministry, we cannot look away. Mr. Abbott is head of the appropriately-named “Love Thy Neighbor” ministry that for now will continue to serve meals to people who are homeless in Ft. Lauderdale. As Lutherans, also called to love our neighbors in public, we have an opportunity and an obligation to help our communities find compassionate and appropriate ways to address homelessness and hunger. It begins with not trying to hide the problem.