Philadelphia advocates clash with the city over new rules on feeding the homeless

Posted: July 10, 2012

The Rev. Brian Jenkins had a simple explanation for why his Chosen 300 Ministries provides free food to homeless people at 16th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

In 1996, Jenkins told a federal judge Monday, God called him to that location and made it his ministry to be there at 4 p.m. on Saturdays, and to conduct a worship service at 5 followed by several hundred free meals at 5:20.

Jenkins says he has since modified his mission to six months out of the year in an agreement with city officials.

But as for moving his program to the concrete apron on the west side of City Hall, Jenkins made it clear to U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr.: "Only if God calls me to."

The Rev. Violet Little, pastor of the Welcome Church, which she called a "church without walls" for homeless people who live along the Parkway, had an equally enigmatic response when Yohn asked her why she could not feed homeless people inside.

"You can't have a church without walls with walls," Little replied.

The veteran judge has been asked to decide if Philadelphia's new ban on public feedings of homeless people in the parks is a legitimate wielding of governmental authority or an unconstitutional violation of the groups' rights of freedom of association and to freely practice their faith.

Yohn is to hold a second day of hearings Tuesday - including testimony from Mayor Nutter - before likely taking the case under advisement and a ruling later.

Four religious groups, which claim to have fed homeless people on the Parkway for more than a decade, filed the suit: Chosen 300 Ministries, the Welcome Church, the King's Jubilee, and Philly Restart. The City of Philadelphia and Mayor Nutter are named as defendants.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and lawyers from the Philadelphia civil rights firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

The groups say the ordinance that took effect June 1 violates their First Amendment rights as well as the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.

City officials, however, say that the restrictions are about public health and that open, unregulated feeding of homeless people increases the risk of sickness from contaminated food.

The groups have continued their Parkway feeding programs despite the new law, asking Yohn to permanently block enforcement. The city has enforced no penalties because of the suit.

Some groups have accepted the city's offer to use the west side of City Hall.

But advocates for the homeless protest that the city's option will end in about a year, leaving the groups with no option but to break the law or find private spaces.

Sister Mary Scullion, founder of Project HOME, testified that she worries the city lacks the resources to feed and house the 130 to 160 people who live outside along the Parkway.

Scullion noted that as part of the new state budget, $160 million is being cut from the state general assistance program on Aug. 1. The cuts will end welfare benefits for 60,000 single adults, including 30,000 in Philadelphia.

That will be followed by a $21 million cut to the city's funding for social and behavioral health programs, Scullion said.

Scullion told Yohn that she considers municipal laws such as the Philadelphia feeding ban part of a national trend in big cities where there is an in-migration of higher-income groups into downtown areas.

Earlier Monday, that suggestion by Paul Messing, an attorney for the religious groups, made one city official bristle.

Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis insisted the law was not targeting religious programs feeding homeless people but was the only way he could stretch limited resources to maintain the parks for all residents.

"The regularity of these [feedings] puts a burden on the system," DiBerardinis testified. "It's not about who it is, it's the activity, and any suggestion that we don't want the homeless people there is dead wrong."

DiBerardinis testified that the homeless feedings - usually on Vine Street between 18th and 19th Streets in front of the Family Court building and the Free Library - forces him to devote disproportionate personnel and money to maintain a small portion of Fairmount Park's 9,200 acres.

Until the new ordinance, DiBerardinis said, the homeless feedings were the only large-scale activity on the Parkway not regulated by the city in some fashion.


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

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