Residents seek end to homeless meal limits

Churches are limited by the city to serving 20 meals per day.

Published: Monday, January 25, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 11:44 p.m.

A group of 15 Gainesville residents met at St. Patrick Catholic Church last Wednesday night to discuss ways to approach repealing the limitations on feeding the local homeless population.

The limitations spring from Gainesville city code provisions that say soup kitchens may not feed more than 130 people per day and congregations may not serve more than 20 per day.

Such restrictions have affected St. Francis House since its inception in 1980, and James Chamberlain said he hopes to repeal these measures by organizing the community with his newly-founded non-profit, the Catholic Action Resource Exchange.

The philanthropic group aims to answer the need of the community's homeless population by spreading awareness and persuading members of the City Commission through organized marches and rallies, he said.

While the organization is based on Catholic principals, its goal is to reach out to everyone, Chamberlain says.

"We want to be the common man's vehicle for change," he said.

University of Florida law professor Joe Jackson said that although the 130-meal limitation was pushed back until the February commission meeting, the 20-meal restriction for churches that will be discussed today is still a pressing issue.

"The government has no business in regulating churches ministering to the poor," he said. "It violates the freedom of expression and religion in the Constitution."

The meeting at 6 tonight will be a chance for members of C.A.R.E. and other homeless rights advocates to have their voices heard, he said.

While some commissioners argue that the provisions were not their doing but were in place before they entered office, Jackson says they're still responsible for perpetuating their existence.

One of the main issues the residents at Wednesday's meeting agreed on was that too many people are unnecessarily afraid of homeless people, and that until people take time to understand them, nothing will change.

Len Ringel said he hardly ever sees any mention of homeless people in Gainesville's police blotter.

"It's mostly normal people," he says.

Ringel and resident Pat Fitzpatrick think nonviolent civil disobedience would be a start to solving the problem. If churches joined together and collectively defied the 20-meal limitation, it would be a step in the right direction, they say.

Jackson, however, said he doesn't want the commissioners to feel like they're backed into a corner because that might "stiffen their resolve."

His plan is to have supporters show up en masse and consistently urge the repeal of the limitation.

Commissioner Jack Donovan said the most feasible and reasonable passage to the repeal would be to propose a temporary lift on the food restriction until the city can come up with a better plan.

This plan, however, needs to be backed by stronger voices in the community in order to succeed, he said.

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