Raleigh, N.C.—The city of Raleigh made headlines for the wrong reasons this weekend after police officers allegedly threatened to arrest people for feeding the homeless in a city square.
Love Wins, a Christian charity, set up in Moore Square Saturday morning to hand out biscuits and coffee, as it has for six years on days soup kitchens are closed. With 70 people in line, police allegedly told the workers if they handed out food, they would go to jail.
The story went viral over the next 24 hours. It turns out the police were enforcing a 1998 ordinance: Anyone distributing food in a park must have an $800 daily permit. Police had not enforced the ordinance until recently, but at least two other charities also got booted from parks in the last few weeks.
The city’s administrators appear to be behind the new push for enforcement, without notifying the city council or the mayor’s office. Mayor Nancy McFarlane showed up in the square Sunday, supporting Food Not Bombs as it defied the ordinance. McFarlane said she is working to bring branches of city government together “immediately” for a “transparent discussion” on the issue: “Raleigh is a progressive city that believes in the values of each of its citizens. We are so fortunate to have dedicated citizens that want to reach out to those in need.”
Raleigh isn’t the first city to confront those who feed the homeless in public. Many laws are somewhat indirect. Police arrested a Food Not Bombs group in Orlando in 2011 for violating a common ordinance requiring permits for gatherings of 25 people or more. Other cities, though, have been so direct that federal courts stepped in.
A federal judge ruled in March that Dallas laws against public feedings violated the Christian plaintiffs’ religious freedom. The rules made workers take food safety classes and provide running water to outdoor areas. Another judge overturned a Philadelphia ban on feeding the homeless in public last August. Atlanta has also had showdowns with charities that aren’t among the eight approved by the city to distribute food in public.
More recently, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration banned donating pre-prepared food to homeless shelters in March 2012. In Seattle, public outcry in January forced the city to relax its decision to end Bread of Life’s 70-year food ministry in a local park.
But Raleigh charities don’t seem likely to face legal battles. McFarlane promised that no one will be arrested for giving food to the homeless. But upcoming discussions will give the city an opportunity for critical thinking on the role of government and charity. While Moore Square may have been the only option for some on Saturday, it doesn’t need to stay that way. The Raleigh Rescue Mission, which sits half a block from Moore Square, provides assistance with housing, job searches, and other services to those committed to getting off the streets.
While the Huffington Post isn’t exactly the standard on proper ways to serve the poor, writer Mark Horvath made some good points in a recent column, speaking directly to Christians as he questioned whether public feeding is the best way to help: “Public feedings do very little to end homelessness. In fact, in many ways public feedings maintain homelessness.” Telling our friends we “fed the lost” may sound good, he says, but could we do better?