Charity Begins in the Park – July cover story

You would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t want to end hunger and homelessness in Cincinnati. Controversy around passing out food and clothing at Washington Park has led some groups to circumvent regulations to do their part to feed the hungry.

Two years ago the Cincinnati Park Board took two steps to make Washington Park a more welcoming place for everyone. The board added a second-shift attendant to keep the park clean, meaning there is staff at the park from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The park board also added a new stipulation to the special permit process: “Permit holder agrees NOT to distribute FOOD or CLOTHING on Park Board property as the exclusive focus of your event. Failure to comply with this rule could automatically forfeit the event. Distribution of food and clothing should be coordinated with one of the local non-profit agencies.”

‘Bless them with food’

Today this policy has people on both sides of the issue still discussing the best way to end hunger and homelessness in Cincinnati.

Julie Horne, manager of business services for the Cincinnati Park Board, says the board “declines to give special-use permit to groups who want to use Washington Park as a staging area to hand out food or clothing.”

She says the board changed the rules because “a significant amount of garbage resulted from food and clothing being passed out, and the park was not designed to be a social service agency.”

Many groups such as Vineyard Community Church in Springdale have been going to Washington Park every Saturday for seven years to hand out food and form relationships with people from Over-the-Rhine.

“We don’t want to just preach what to do, so we decided to do something,” says Sean Michael Murphy, director of evangelism at the Vineyard.

That led to the formation of a group that comes down every Saturday now. Sometimes between 30 and 40 people from the church help out.

“If people are hungry, we can bless them with food,” Murphy says.

Although the group thought they were doing everything properly – until they were asked to stop.

“Two years ago the park police asked us to leave and to not pass out food in the park,” Murphy says.

The church group stopped for awhile but recently returned to Washington Park and has been passing out food on the sidewalk, technically not on park property.

The park board encourages groups that want to pass out food to partner with a non-profit agency in Over-the-Rhine that might already be providing a similar service.

“When groups inquire about a special use permit to pass out food, we refer them to local social-service agencies that distribute food and clothing in the vicinity of Washington Park,” Horne says.

Pat Clifford, general coordinator at the Drop Inn Center, whose agency is listed as a referral by the parks board, believes people should be allowed to pass out food.

“I think people should be allowed to get permits to feed as long as people need the food and the groups agree to clean up and are considerate of the neighbors,” he says.

Since the new stipulation was passed two years ago, Clifford says he has only had a couple of groups contact him about using the Drop Inn Center as a staging ground to pass out food and clothing. He says what they don’t want is “groups coming by and dropping clothes on the sidewalk and leaving trash everywhere. It’s not good for the neighborhood and is not dignified for the people.”

‘Unintended consequences’

Joe Wessels, who lives near the park, believes that groups who come down to pass out food have good intentions.

“I think their intentions are pure and good but the end result is less than spectacular,” he says.

The food distribution has negative consequences, according to Wessels.

“It encourages people to be dependent and not independent,” he says. “When groups leave, there is always trash piled high in the garbage cans.”

The new regulation hasn’t really deterred the public feeding, Wessels says.

“I haven’t noticed a decline because they just use the sidewalk now, but it is much better since the groups did a better job of picking up the trash after themselves,” he says.

Wessels would like such groups to partner with agencies or churches that are already in Over-the-Rhine.

“There are two churches located right on the park (and) many social-service agencies that would probably welcome the help. They are very good, decent people who mean well but there are unintended consequences.”

This is not just an issue that Cincinnati faces.

“Defining where groups can pass out food or clothing is a common tactic to get homeless out of sight,” Clifford says. “Whether it is successful is to be seen. Another law or policy is not going to make poverty or homelessness go away.”

A report by the National Coalition for the Homeless in November 2007 found 22 cities have similar laws or policies in place. In Orlando, Fla., the group Food Not Bombs has sued the city over a law that requires groups to get permits to pass out food to the homeless, with a limit of applying twice a year. The case is pending in federal court, where the mayor was forced to testify.

Murphy says his group has worked with City Gospel Mission on various art projects.

“Our focus is not solely on food, but forming relationships and helping people better their situation,” he says.

With budgets getting smaller and resources more expensive, it might be in the best interest of everyone involved to not alienate groups that, in the end all have the same goal: ending hunger and homelessness.