With rules about to change, feeding programs continue on the Parkway

Posted: May 12, 2012

In the tight Brewerytown kitchen of Rachel Hosan, a cloud of steam rose from a five-gallon pot on the stove. Into the cauldron of boiling water, she emptied bags and bags of rigatoni.

Beside her, Rachel Koppenhaver, her roommate, sliced chicken, onions, spinach, and asparagus.

For almost an hour, the women were in constant motion, draining pasta, tossing it with pesto, adding parmesan, before dividing heaps of food into the pot and two large roasting pans.

With the help of another friend, Matt Allison, they lugged everything out to a car, including a plastic crate filled with paper plates, cups, napkins, and plastic utensils.

At 6:45 p.m., they arrived at a grassy area across from Family Court, where their dinner guests were already waiting: at least five dozen men and women, some homeless, some not, all hungry and poor.

The two Rachels are part of a regular team of volunteers from Liberti Church Fairmount who feed the homeless on park space along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The church is among the dozen or so groups that regularly hand out food — and now are embroiled in a battle with Mayor Nutter over whether they should be allowed to continue.

With the opening of the new Barnes Foundation building on May 19, the momentum to move feeding programs indoors has picked up. Mark McDonald, the mayor’s spokesman, denies that there’s any correlation between the city’s decision to take action on homeless feedings and the world attention that will come with the unveiling of the new home for the renowned art collection. “This is not something that has just popped up,” he said.

Since the start of the year, the Nutter administration has been advancing new regulations that will affect individuals or groups that serve free meals on the Parkway.

The Board of Health has instituted new hygiene regulations. Effective June 1, the rules include mandatory food safety training for at least one member of each group serving meals and securing a permit to distribute food.

At the same time, the Department of Parks and Recreation intends to ban public feedings in city parks, which includes all of the open space along the Parkway. The department will work with the mayor on final language, but no date has been set for when the rules will take effect.

McDonald said the city had offered groups that insist on feeding people outdoors the use of the north side of City Hall. They must first register with the city’s Department of Public Property and complete the Health Department’s food safety training.

He added that groups are still free to serve food outdoors — but it has to be “any non-park place in the city.”

For Liberti Fairmount, the looming ban is creating a dilemma over what to do next.

“I don’t have a good answer,” Hosan said. “We’re in the process of discussing it.”

Elders of the church, which uses space at the Berean Institute on Girard Avenue, will have to consider the options, she said, and decide what to do if they are no longer allowed to serve meals in the park by Family Court.

Elisabeth Clemmer, another Liberti volunteer, said the church members would like to find a “creative way” around the problem. They feel committed to working outdoors, since that’s where many homeless people live, and “ideally” would like to find someone with private land near the Parkway who would left them continue with their meal program.

She said the ban was unjust and violated the religious freedom of the church.

“We’re not interested in disobeying the law, but we’d like to be there where people are,” Clemmer said. “We don’t have any interest in going indoors. We don’t have a facility and we don’t know anyone with a facility.”

Some opponents with other groups have stated more clearly that they have no intention of moving. McDonald said that under the proposed rules, police could issue a warning to anyone serving food to the homeless in parks. Two warnings could result in a fine of $150, he said.

The members of the Liberti church have been serving meals on the Parkway for seven years. Koppenhaver, who moved to the city from the central Pennsylvania borough of Dillsburg, said she got involved in preparing meals two years ago. “I couldn’t keep walking by homeless people and not do anything about it,” she said.

Every other Friday night, the Liberti volunteers meet at someone’s home to prepare a hot dinner for about $100. They alternate meals with two other churches: Philadelphia Korean Church of Flourtown and New Life Church of Glenside.

Last Friday night, a single-file line of people waited patiently for the Liberti team to arrive in front of Family Court. Wearing plastic gloves — a new Health Department regulation — the church volunteers served heaping portions of pasta, sliced bread, and cookies.

One of the people in line was Floyd Bird, who said he was out of work and living with a friend. The mayor’s push for a ban on free meals on the Parkway, he said, was all about image and the tourist season. “He don’t want the sight of this,” Bird said. “He don’t want people from other states seeing what’s going on here.”

Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @j_linq.

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