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End to feeding homeless in city parks?

Mayor Nutter proposes an end to feeding the hungry and homeless in city parks.

Mayor Nutter on Wednesday announced plans to end the feeding of large numbers of hungry and homeless people in city parks, saying he wanted to provide all of them an indoor meal.

The proposal is the latest volley in a long-running battle over how best to meet the needs of the city's many poor people.

Free meals are served at several outdoor locations throughout the city, but one of the largest occurs on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, near the Free Library and Family Court buildings, where dozens and even hundreds gather daily for meals.

That location is a stone's throw from the new, $200 million Barnes Foundation, scheduled to open in May, leading some critics to contend that the desire to keep homeless people out of sight of tourists motivated the mayor.

Nutter, however, called that point of view "cynical." He said he simply wants to provide better, safer food to the city's hungry residents, along with access to other services, including physical and mental-health care.

"My motivation is not to exclude anyone," Nutter said. "I want a hungry person in need to know they can go to a clean, dry place."

As evidence, he said the city would set up a new, temporary feeding location on the northwest corner of City Hall. Groups who want to provide meals there will have to take free city classes on food safety and register to serve at specific hours. That site is expected to begin operating May 1.

Right now, the city does not have power to regulate thsoe who provide free meals, but the Board of Health is considering new rules to do so.

Eventually, the city plans to end the outdoor service at City Hall, once it has figured out how to increase the number of meals available at indoor locations.

The city's Department of Parks and Recreation will submit the proposed ban on feedings Thursday, where it will be available for public comment for 30 days. Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis can then adopt the regulations as drafted or amend them based on comments.

People, including the homeless, would still be allowed to eat in city parks, and the ban would not affect family picnics or public events, Nutter said.

He described those who provide the outdoor meals as "people of goodwill and commitment." But city officials also said those people inadvertently encourage people to stay outdoors, instead of coming indoors, where they might have a more comfortable meal and get other help.

The proposal drew mixed reactions from groups that feed and shelter the hungry and homeless.

Sister Mary Scullion, co-founder of Project HOME, and the city's most visible advocate for the homeless, said she supported the proposed ban but would monitor it carefully.

"I'm here today taking a risk because I honestly believe that (the Nutter administration is) trying to move forward in ending hunger and homelessness in our city," she said. "This is not an easy position, but I do think it's a great opportunity."

Brian Jenkins, executive director of the Chosen 300 Ministries, a network of 73 churches that feeds homeless people at several locations around the city, including on the Parkway, said the mayor was guilty of discrimination.

"It's a clear violation of civil rights," he said. "The reality is that before the Barnes Foundation comes in, they are trying to get people off the Parkway."

Niko Rayercq from press release, who works with Northeast Philadelphia Food Not Bombs, another group that serves meals on the Parkway, said the food there is often healthier than what is available at shelters. She also said not everyone is willing or able to go inside to eat.

"We want to have dignity for eveyrboy but it's not dignified to let people go hungry if they can't go inside, or if for some reason they don't want to go inside," she said.

She said she was pleased that the city is offering free food safety classes to groups that want to feed the hungry. But she opposes regulations under consideration by the Board of Health that would require groups to apply to the city to serve food at the outdoor City Hall location. She is helping to organize a protest against the plans at 4 p.m. Thursday on Thomas Paine Plaza, across from City Hall.

Groups that want to provide food at City Hall would have to have at least one volunteer on site who has completed a free, safe-food handling course offered by the Health Department. They also would have to comply with other safety requirements.

City Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz believes the new regulations would reduce the chance of an outbreak of food-borne illness.

Groups that violate the requirements would get two warnings and then a $150 fine.

Bill Golderer, convening minister of the Broad Street Ministry, which last yearchecking served 15,600 free meals and recently completed a $500,000 renovation of its kitchen to serve more, said he did not want to comment specifically on the mayor's proposal. But he said he supports indoor feedings philosophically, as a way to make people feel more comfortable.

"If I am interested in engaging the suffering of one of my neighbors, I would invite them into my home, to emind them of their dignity and that they have a place at the table, whoever you are," Golderer said.

Dick McMillen, Executive Director of the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, said he understands both sides of the issue but approves of the proposed safety training as a step in the right direction.

"There is a legitimate safety concern that has to be paid attention to," he said.

He also thinks there is a need to provide homeless people with more services, as Nutter suggested Wednesday.

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