Posted by: Emily Twinch17/07/2012
A mayor in the US has just been blocked from attempts to ban people feeding rough sleepers on the streets.
Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter brought in a law last month that banned groups from serving food to people in public parks. Nutter by name, and maybe just a little bit crazy to try something against what seems to be an international strength of will by charitable folk to give food to those on the streets.
Something similar happened in London last year. Westminster Council caused outrage when they tried to bring in a bye-law to ban soup runs in parts of the borough at the start of the year. In March hundreds of people turned out to lay on the ground outside the doors of the Communities and Local Government department to protest. By the autumn the council had backed down from its plans.
US district judge William H Yohn in Philadelphia has halted the enforcement for about four months and could still decide to uphold it when he files his written judgement. But religious charities have vowed to break the law come what may and continue to feed the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia. Charities in Westminster had similar reactions to the Westminster plan. They also said they would break the law to feed people.
Giving people food when they are in need might seem the very obvious charitable, humane response to the situation. But Mayor Nutter argues his ban is to stop well-meaning church groups spreading food-borne illnesses from ‘improper handling of food’ and feeding rough sleepers on the streets does not helping to tackle all the other issues they may have, such as mental health or substance abuse issues.
There are homelessness charities in the UK that would agree that soup runs are not the way to go. Along with the Communities and Local Government department, charities Thames Reach and St Mungo’s supported Westminster Council’s move. They believe soup runs can help ‘encourage’ people to stay on the streets, making it easier for entrenched rough sleepers to stay on the streets.
But could these attempts just be a way of removing rough sleepers away from places where they could be considered an ‘eye-sore’? Westminster Council only wanted to ban soup runs from the Westminster Cathedral piazza and surrounding areas. The cathedral is the heart of the catholic community in England and Wales, and a tourist attraction. Critics of Mayor Nutter’s plans say it was an attempt to clear rough sleepers away from Benjamin Franklin Parkways, an area where tourist attractions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum and the newly relocated Barnes Foundation collection are found. The four charities that filed the law suit said the law demonstrated ‘a determination to remove from the vicinity of the Barnes Foundation those that some view as undesirable to the public image of the city of Philadelphia’. (If this is the case, a trick the London mayor has luckily not used in his aim to end rough sleeping this year – something he could have used to ‘clean up’ the streets before the Olympic Games next week?)
It does seem there might be an argument banning them could be a disguised attempt to move rough sleepers on from tourist attractions. But, certainly, there is an overwhelming strength of feeling from many people that they should stay. If they are to continue, it does seem obvious that they should in some way, attempt to help and encourage people out of a life of rough sleeping. If their very existence and nature doesn’t stop them from doing that.
From Who cares?
Analysis of the latest developments in supported housing, homelessness and work with vulnerable people