Philadelphia's ban on outdoor feeding is a harmful distraction

Posted: June 09, 2012

St. Vincent de Paul, the 17th-century French priest known for his great charity toward those in need, once said, "It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them."

This idea has intrigued and challenged me for years. And it comes to mind again amid the controversy over Philadelphia's new prohibition of meals provided on the streets to those who are homeless and hungry.

St. Vincent understood that, as valuable as the act of charity is, its very necessity represents the existence of grievous injustice and fracture in the human community. That some of our sisters and brothers do not have enough to eat is a sign of our failure to build a healthy and humane society.

As such, the debate over meals provided along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway threatens to distract us from the real issue. The problem is not these "feeding" programs, but rather the persistence of hunger, homelessness, and poverty in our city.

It is distressing that public resources and the efforts of our civic leadership, which should be devoted to solving these problems, are being expended on regulating and policing charity by religious and other volunteer groups seeking to help those in need. It's particularly troubling at a time when we are facing significant cuts in state funding for human services and strains on the city shelter system, both of which could contribute to further homelessness in Philadelphia.

Nevertheless, the controversy over outdoor meals is upon us. And I believe the most hopeful possibility it presents is that it could help us address these underlying issues.

Mayor Nutter, who has repeatedly asserted his commitment to making Philadelphia the first city to end homelessness, is to be commended for trying to resolve the long-standing controversy in a way that meets the needs of those on the streets. His administration has agreed to establish indoor facilities offering those who are homeless healthy meals in a dignified setting, as well as access to services that meet their broader needs. The administration has also proposed a commission to develop long-term responses to the needs of people who are hungry, including those who are in shelters or on the streets.

These are positive steps. And in my conversations with the people on the streets who are eating the volunteer-provided meals, many have acknowledged the advantages of the administration's approach.

But as the ban on outdoor feeding has gone into effect, the reality is that the proposed service-enriched dining centers are not in place, and hungry people on the streets do not have appropriate alternatives. And we see no signs of progress in dealing with the underlying realities of hunger and homelessness.

So we are left with nothing but a prohibition on providing meals on the streets — an effective criminalization of charity, a violation of religious liberties for many church groups, and possibly the removal of a vital lifeline for many of those who are on the streets. This is not a step forward, but a lamentable step backward. It is only furthering the injustice and deepening the fracture of the human community.

The worst-case scenario is that the city's new policy will be used to move "undesirable" people out of sight and out of mind, protecting a billion-dollar investment in the new Barnes Foundation as well as the other institutions along the Parkway.

But that's not the kind of city we are. We are better than that. People from all sectors of Philadelphia have come together many times before to find concrete, creative, humane solutions to our pressing urban problems that will also enhance the quality of life of all citizens.

Let's work together for a day when every Philadelphian has a home and is able to enjoy healthy, sufficient meals. Let's all, as our religious traditions call us to, hunger for justice. And together we will celebrate the day when we all have our fill.

Sister Mary Scullion is the executive director of the homeless-services organization Project H.O.M.E.

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