Holidays amplify debate about feeding homeless

Conflict over holiday meals symptomatic of the larger homeless problem in area.

Published: Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 11:32 p.m.

Public outcry against city laws limiting how many destitute people can be served at any one location resounded this past week as the city's largest meal provider on Thanksgiving and Christmas grapples with a 130-meal limit.

Kent Vann, executive director of the St. Francis House homeless shelter and soup kitchen, said his agency historically has fed 400 to 500 people each holiday meal.

While a temporary solution to the dispute likely will be reached next week, with the city offering a facility exempt from the laws to host the meals, the conflict is symptomatic of the larger homeless problem.

In the past year, private property owners have enforced no-trespassing laws, shutting down large homeless encampments south of downtown; St. Francis House began turning people away when it reached its meal limit; and two public spaces frequented by the homeless have been redeveloped, with one of them temporarily closed to them.

Gainesville City Commissioner Jack Donovan, who has referred the laws on meal limits to commissioners for the next meeting, said the past year's events are not a covert effort by the city to push the homeless out of downtown.

"The overarching goal of the city is to reduce homelessness in our community. To get people out of downtown is not the primary goal that I have observed - it is to help people get back on their feet," Donovan said. "We want to make downtown a good place for people of every group, not the center of attention for feeding programs that could happen in other places."

Holiday meals for the needy are a 25-year tradition at St. Francis House, with hundreds gathering at the downtown homeless shelter and soup kitchen for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This year, however, a new location will have to be found for that tradition, as city laws restricting the number of destitute individuals who can be served meals by churches and social service agencies are being enforced for the first time since the laws were written in the early '90s.

"For us, it's been an ongoing tradition for a long time, and we don't do this ourselves - it's done through the community," Vann said. "We have 200 volunteers come in to serve those that are less fortunate. It's not just about the homeless; it's about people in the community who are low-income or poor."

The city laws - which regulate how, where and when food and shelter are provided to the destitute - were created with the goal of distributing social services evenly across the community so that no single neighborhood would be adversely affected.

"In the short run, it is not possible to change the ordinance fast enough to allow (St. Francis House) to feed that number of people," Donovan said. "We are going to move ahead with an ordinance change directed to staff at our next meeting so that on holidays, in the future, that could happen."

Vann said St. Francis House doesn't want to violate the mandate that the City Plan Board gave in March that the shelter not exceed the 130-person meal limit.

The limits have been part of the shelter's special-use permit since it was first granted. However, this year Vann testified at the permit renewal meeting in March that his agency regularly exceeded the limit, not wanting to turn away the hungry and needy.

The City Plan Board reissued the five-year permit but told St. Francis House that future violations would result in revocation of its permit.

The city of Gainesville has offered the use, free of charge, of the Martin Luther King Multi-Purpose Center at 1028 N.E. 14th St. for the meals.

Vann said he'll consult his board of directors and get back to the city soon with a response, noting that the MLK center is quite a walk from the St. Francis House downtown.

There are numerous city laws regulating how places of religious assembly provide services to the needy.

Although widely ignored, these laws were created in the late 1990s with the intent of spreading the burden of social service providers throughout the community.

The laws stipulate that service providers must be a certain distance apart, not serve more than 20 meals per day or house more than 20 people. Those laws, after spending more than a year in committee, are coming before the full commission soon to consider revision.

The commission also will consider ending a ban on feeding the destitute within 2,000 feet of the University of Florida campus, and changes to distance requirements between feeding centers.

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