On any given day in Los Angeles County, hundreds of shelters and volunteer organizations feed the homeless. According to one estimate, about 50 groups serve meals outdoors, drawing the hungry poor, the homeless and the nearly homeless who live in their cars.
Such so-called public feedings have stirred controversy in cities across the country, where well-intentioned providers of outdoor suppers clash with residents who are frustrated and annoyed at having to deal with the aftermath of those meals — people trespassing onto front lawns and into backyards, sleeping in bushes and using them as bathrooms. Some cities have banned public feedings.
Now, L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge has introduced a motion directing city departments to find a "solution" to what he evidently sees as a problem. But he should be very careful: Making it harder for hungry people to obtain food is not morally acceptable. If there is indeed a problem, then officials must find a narrowly tailored solution, not one that increases hunger among the homeless.
Because it is not immediately possible to get all 57,000 of the county's homeless people into supportive housing, the best interim approach is for advocates, public agencies, law enforcement and neighborhood groups to work together to prevent trespassing and other violations of the law where meals are being dispensed. Simply moving a food station to another part of town where residents are not as vocal about their complaints or as well connected to politicians is no solution at all.
But just as the hungry deserve food, residents have a right to public health, public safety and clean streets. The long-running conflict between the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition and the Hollywood neighborhood where the coalition sets up a nightly food truck (which sparked LaBonge's motion) could be lessened if advocates, local businesses and city officials helped bring portable public toilets to the area. In this particular case, both the founder of the coalition and the president of the local business improvement district say they have tried unsuccessfully for years to find common ground.
But they must do more. The coalition staff and volunteers should consider staying around after the food service to discourage the homeless from taking shelter on private property and to steer them toward public shelters where they can be relatively warm and safe for the night. The local business improvement district could have its security personnel patrol the neighborhood near the food truck location. And police need to patrol more.