by Jane Porter
Raleigh City Council Chambers, capacity 244, was packed to the brim Wednesday afternoon at an emergency meeting of the Law and Public Safety Committee. It was called to address the issue of food distribution in city parks and greenways, which, as many people were surprised to learn this week, is in fact, illegal in Raleigh.
People sat and stood, listened and waited to speak, all expecting an explanation why police threatened to arrest members of a church group trying to give free sausage biscuits to homeless people in Moore Square Park last weekend. Love Wins Ministry and other charities have done this every weekend morning for at least the last six years.
The explanation given by City Council was, for lack of a better description, not very good.
Councilor Randall Stagner said an ordinance has been on Raleigh’s books outlawing distributing food in public parks since 1999—unless you buy a $325 per-day permit to do so and put down a $500 “cleanup deposit.”
And the city hasn’t been enforcing the ordinance for the last 14 years because … well, no real reason was given, but Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown made vague references to litter, health and safety, panhandling, alcohol and public urination.
Police calls to Moore Square Park were compared with those in Nash Square: 162 in 2013, to Nash’s 29, though one speaker did note Nash’s proximity to a police station, and the police chief herself said things in Moore Square were “getting better” thanks to efforts made by the RPD.
And, Deck-Brown explained a weekend plan was devised last Friday—by Parks and Rec, RPD, the Department for Community Development and Public Works-- that would send four police officers out to Moore Square to “educate” groups participating in food distribution to the homeless that they could be arrested for doing that.
No arrests were to be made, though, just threats of arrest. And there was definitely no distribution of food.
Committee head Mary-Ann Baldwin made several recommendations on what further action to take, including engaging with community groups for a solution to the problem of what amounts to a lot of homeless people hanging out in Moore Square, looking for alternative sites to distribute food and not enforcing the ordinance (no permits needed, no arrests) until a long-term solution has been reached.
The public was still confused, their questions largely unanswered, and audience members made some astute points:
Police suddenly attempted to enforce ordinance 9-2022 and then backed down. Why?
People line up to get food in an orderly manner and food distribution groups clean up after themselves.
A lot of vacant buildings in Raleigh could be used to house the homeless.
The only public bathrooms in downtown Raleigh are in Moore Square.
There is a lot of vacant property downtown where groups could distribute food, as they have attempted to do unsuccessfully in the past.
Rich people litter as well; drunks clog up the sidewalks on weekend evening
Moore Square Park is a central Raleigh location.
The city acted in bad faith.
The one heartening thing to take away from this afternoon’s meeting? Everyone, including City Council, RPD and the public, say they want to help Raleigh’s neediest people.
How that happens remains to be seen.
Update: Late this afternoon, the N.C. Department of Administration granted a permit today to a Raleigh charity that requested space to feed the homeless in Raleigh’s downtown area. Church in the Woods, a nonprofit charitable organization, has been permitted to use the grounds at the corner of Lane and Wilmington streets from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 8.
“We feel that it is important for North Carolina’s charities to be able do their good work in cooperation with State government,” Gov. Pat McCrory said in a press release. “We are pleased to be able to help.”
Church in the Woods applied for the permit on Aug. 26. They expect to serve approximately 100 people.