Charity Meals Debated in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Opponents in this political debate look at a plate of food and see two very different things.

City officials view free food as part of the problem. They blame outdoor meals offered by charitable groups for attracting homeless people and a slew of problems to their cities.

Advocates for the poor see the food handouts as humanitarianism at its best, an effort by charitable groups to fulfill a responsibility to the poor that governments have failed to meet.

Across the nation, advocates for the homeless have squared off with city officials over everything from sleeping on city sidewalks to outdoor toilets, but in Southern California the debate now centers on one of the most essential elements of human existence.

Call this the politics of food.

One day after Santa Monica passed an ordinance in October limiting the distribution of food in public, Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry introduced a motion calling for the creation of a similar law in Los Angeles.

"Our shelters and food distribution systems, as well as our streets and sidewalks, are the destination point for thousands of homeless persons referred or transported there by other cities, community agencies and governmental entities, including the Sheriff's Department," the motion reads.

The idea of such an ordinance has the backing of several business interests in downtown Los Angeles. But homeless people also would benefit from the proposed changes, Perry said.

"It's an unhealthy and unsafe way to try to help people because there is no structure to these activities, nor are there any hygiene standards observed," she said. "Most of us wouldn't feel eating food in that way was acceptable, and I feel people on skid row deserve the same level of respect."

Full of zeal to help the less fortunate, some groups neglect the basics of food service, Perry said, serving meals without wearing plastic gloves, or hair coverings. Sometimes the food lines spill into the street or fights break out, creating other hazards, she said.

Tracey Lovejoy of the Central City East Assn., a business group, said those who serve food sometimes neglect to pick up trash, and the responsibility falls on business owners and residents. For all the problems they cause, the food lines aren't necessary, Lovejoy said.

"The reality is, there isn't any need down here for the food," Lovejoy said. "If you're living down here, you can get five meals a day from the various missions.... That's one thing that's not lacking down here."

Some of the missions and other groups permanently based downtown say they also would like to see visiting groups offer meals in a more coordinated way, said Larry Adamson, chief executive of the Midnight Mission and president of the Los Angeles Central Area Providers.

"I don't think most of us have a problem with this ordinance," he said. "We understand it.... We see the need for it."

The ideal way to help, Adamson said, is for groups to coordinate with standing organizations like his and use their kitchen facilities, or rent community centers. That would minimize the effects on the community and upgrade the hygiene standards, he said.

In language similar to that of the Santa Monica ordinance, Perry's motion asks the city attorney to present an ordinance that would "limit free outdoor meals by requiring groups serving 150 or more people to adhere to community event laws and county health standards."

The effort to create an ordinance is still in the early stages; the issue would have to be discussed and voted upon by the City Council.

But critics say importing the ordinance won't be easy.

"Los Angeles can't simply replicate Santa Monica's ordinances because Los Angeles doesn't have a community event law," said Robert Myers, vice president of the National Lawyers Guild. The nearest things that Los Angeles has to such an ordinance are its parade and permit policies, he said. The Los Angeles city attorney's office did not answer questions concerning those policies.

On Jan. 3, the National Lawyers Guild filed a federal lawsuit against Santa Monica, arguing that its new law makes it impossible for charitable, religious and political groups to assist the poor. At a rally at the upscale Third Street Promenade, activists vowed to turn their fight to Los Angeles if the city follows Santa Monica's lead.

Some Los Angeles lawmakers "want to use the same kind of legal measures to clear the homeless out of downtown Los Angeles to make room for more commercial development," said Carol Sobel, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

That view is shared by skid row resident Andrew Johnson of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which opposes the idea of restricting outdoor feeding. Where Perry sees a problem, Johnson sees a warm display of kindness. Each week, volunteers show up on skid row corners toting bright pink boxes of doughnuts, cups of hot soup or brown lunch bags filled with sandwiches, chips and bottled water.

The help comes from a rainbow of people and a melange of faiths -- Muslims, Christians and Bahai, Korean Americans and Latinos, whites and African Americans -- all drawn by skid row's need and the desire to fill it.

"As you walk around, people with ... heart are feeding people," Johnson said. "Everybody is showing some compassion to the homeless, from all sectors of society. That to me is impressive."

Johnson, who lives in transitional housing and frequents food lines, said much of the food is prepackaged, and some servers already use hair nets and gloves. But for Johnson, the outdoor meals are like being invited to someone's house for a meal.

"You wouldn't expect hair nets and gloves," he said. "It's not a concern. They're hungry."

Charity groups that fail to provide proper crowd control quickly learn from those who are in line what to do, sometimes employing the homeless to maintain order.

Naim Shah Jr., whose ILM Foundation feeds once a month, said the group already practices the standards that concern Perry. They hand out boxes of chicken or burgers prepared by donor restaurants.

As a Muslim, Shah sees helping as an obligation. "Whatever faith you have enforces basic principles of charity; these are maxims of religion," he said.

In December, the ILM Foundation got a city permit, blocked off a street and fed more than 1,000 people in one day. It also gave away hygiene packs with towels and toothbrushes and brought in a mobile health clinic. Respect for those it serves is a given, Shah said.

"We have to do it with dignity," Shah said. "If it's void of respect, the food is of no value."

The First AME Church in West Adams has a long-standing relationship with skid row. Members feed at the Union Rescue Mission, ministers visit and preach, choirs go and sing. They distribute AIDS information, condoms and clothing.

Brenda Lamothe, the church's executive assistant, said the idea of restricting public meals does not address the real problem of homelessness.

"We've been putting a Band-Aid on it for years," she said. "Let's uncover all of that and really look at the heart of the issue, and that's the people. What does it take to heal people? And it's not wearing gloves when you serve them food."

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