Several organizations that feed the hungry in Philadelphia plan to defy a city regulation that bans food distribution in all city parks.
The announcement was made with little fanfare on Wednesday, Mayor Michael Nutter introduced a series of actions designed to encourage hungry Philadelphians, and those who feed the hungry outdoors, to move to indoor locations over the next year.
Since Wednesday, the leaders of several organizations that feed the hungry have angrily spoken out against it, publicly stating they plan to defy the regulation, that's set to take effect next month.
Mayor Nutter defended it, saying the new policy initiative is aimed at increasing the health, safety, dignity and support for those vulnerable individuals who now gain their daily and often less than daily sustenance from well-intentioned people distributing food on city streets.
"Too often, I’ve driven past Love Park or along the Ben Franklin Parkway and seen people lined up in front of a van, shivering in the cold and rain, huddled in the dark. And sometimes they’re lined up but no van or car ever appears," said Mayor Nutter during Wednesday's news conference.
But critics of the ban claim it has less to do with ensuring a healthy environment for the homeless and more to do with removing them from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Love Park and other city venues popular with visitors.
At a public hearing on the issue, held by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health on Thursday, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell argued against the ban.
"I think it is quite obvious that we have a new court building, hotel, and certainly the Barnes foundation which I support, coming in town and we're for them 1000 percent but we don't believe we should further victimize people who are already victims, victims of poverty, victims of problems, victims in so many ways and exacerbate the situation by making them feel even more like victims," said Blackwell.
In response to assertations by some that the city is taking action because of the Barnes Foundation, the reborn Ben Franklin Parkway and the Sister Cities Park, Mayor Nutter responded, "Let me be very clear on this point: this is not about people. This is about activity. It’s not about who is on the parkway but how it is used. My motivation is not to exclude people. Anyone can walk the Parkway, visit our fantastic cultural institutions or just sit on a bench and contemplate the day. Anyone and everyone."
The leaders of "Chosen 300 Ministries" and "We Feed the Homeless: Philly", two groups that distribute food to the needy along the Parkway, argue there isn't enough indoor space in the city to accomodate all of the people who need help each day.
Brian Jenkins, the Executive Dirctor of "Chosen 300 Ministries", echoed Councilwoman Blackwell's comments at Thursday's hearing saying it's not about a health issue, it's about getting homeless people off the parkway.
"The mayor stated clearly in his press conference the goal is to get them indoors, they are not a them, they are not a those, they are citizens of this community and just like anyone else has a right to eat in this park, our homeless citizens have a right to eat in this park," said Jenkins.
During a rally in Center City on Saturday, Craig Stroman, CEO and co-founder of "We Feed the Homeless Philly", told NBC10 Philadelphia, "We don't have refugees, these people are Americans, we don't believe the Mayor should be putting this out and we need to come together as churches, as civic organizations and as non-profit organizations to push back against this policy."
The ban goes into effect in mid-April. Violators will face two warnings and then a $150 fine.
Jenkins says that won't deter his organization. He told the city Health Department, "We would like to serve the city notice right now, we are not moving we are going to stay at 16th and Ben Franklin Parkway on Saturdays."
Stroman says his group isn't budging either. "We're going to keep helping people until someone kicks us off these streets," said Stroman.