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Feeding the Homeless Should Be Celebrated Not Penalized

Activist Holds Sign Asking "Did Jesus Need a Permit?" as Sacramento Bans Feeding Homeless

Last weekend, volunteers and organizers with Food not Bombs gathered to feed the homeless.  During the effort, police officers handed out brochures discouraging “street feeding.” Volunteers were further informed they were in violation of Fulton County code. Police reportedly threatened volunteers with arrests, for an alleged offense requiring citation. However, the code section referenced refers to the regulation of “food establishments” which does not clearly state whether it would cover members of the general public feeding the homeless outside.

During the November 20, 2017, city council meeting, various individuals raised concerns about the police tactics along with the legality of the brochures.  State Representative Park Cannon gave testimony as a resident in the fourth ward and member of the community. Representative Cannon laid out concerns with the brochure noting the use of a previously repealed code section. She also objected to a classification of members of the general public as “food establishments.”

Representative Cannon also referenced the closure of the homeless shelter formerly at Peachtree and Pine, noting a deficit in services and care for the city’s homeless population. Focusing on the recent efforts of police at Woodruff and Hurt Parks, Representative Cannon further explained that at least one of the rules listed on the brochure had been repealed in October 2015.

Overall, there seemed to be confusion over the central issue raised by Representative Cannon and others present, should the City of Atlanta use the regulations about food service establishments to prevent the general public from feeding the homeless outdoors.  Specifically, Food Service establishments are defined in Georgia Code §26-2-370 as “establishments for the preparation and serving of meals, lunches, short orders, sandwiches, frozen desserts, or other edible products either for carry out or service within the establishment. The term includes restaurants; coffee shops; cafeterias; short order cafes; luncheonettes; taverns; lunchrooms; places which retail sandwiches or salads; soda fountains; institutions, both public and private; food carts; itinerant restaurants; industrial cafeterias; catering establishments; and similar facilities by whatever name called.”

Also, the brochures cited Georgia Department of Public Health regulations about Special Food Service Operations at Ga. Comp R. & Regs §511-6-1-.08. The section has an extensive list of scenarios and conditions that warrant regulation under this section. There are recurring references to commercial transactions and sale of food. Examples of special operations include catering services and food carts. It is further noted that references to the general public in the relevant code sections do not include “participants in a pot-luck dinner, covered dish supper, or similar event in which the food is prepared or contributed by participants.”  See Ga. Comp R. & Regs §511-6-1-.01(62).

Various council members seemed confused by the issue with several references to working with existing communities and residual trash from outdoor feeding. There was also some concern with sanitary conditions in outdoor feeding. It was also relayed that outdoor feeding would not solve the issue of homelessness in Atlanta.  While these are valid concerns, they do not remove the need for the service provided by volunteers and organizers with groups like Food not Bombs. Furthermore, there is a real question as to whether officers can enforce these provisions in a manner that does not unnecessarily escalate situations.

As we count down to the election of new leaders for our city and county, it is crucial that we have leadership willing to act in a manner that is not focused merely on appeasing elite interests at the expense of the most vulnerable populations. The incoming mayor and city council president need to work together and with community organizers and service providers to also address the lack of resources and money owed.  

During the comment period, two individuals spoke about payments that were past due to service providers. In one instance it was noted the city owed Jerusalem House approximately one million dollars. It is hard to tell community members just to let service providers and other institutions handle an issue when they are improperly resourced. Administrative oversight and delays have life-altering consequences for those at the margins.

Like many major cities, Atlanta has struggled with how to end homelessness. Unfortunately, too many instances look at the people as the problem instead of the persisting issues of lack of low-cost housing and other supportive services. The current effort is not the first time Atlanta has tried to use public health regulations to prevent feeding of the homeless. In 2003, former Mayor Shirley Franklin issued an executive order that prohibits feeding the homeless in parks or otherwise in public.

Atlanta is not the first city to hamper the ability of volunteers and organizers to provide food and resources to homeless citizens. In “Share no More: The Criminalization of Efforts to Feed People in Need” the National Coalition for the Homeless documented attempts across the country to limit or criminalize assisting the homeless. The report also documents some community successes.

These issues are increasingly important as we look toward the December 5th runoff elections. We need to make sure regardless of who wins in the next round of voting; there is a concerted effort to ensure the city is following through on its obligation in a timely fashion to some of our most vulnerable families and the organizations that serve them. There also is a need to support the activists, organizers and elected officials who have been on the frontlines.

Volunteers and organizers with Food Not Bombs Atlanta continue to lead efforts to feed the homeless. They are not backing down and should not be expected to do so either. In the coming weeks and months, it will be telling to see how the new city leadership will balance this issue. 

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