Judge blocks enforcement of homeless feeding ban

Posted: July 13, 2012

Mayor Nutter's plan to take distribution of free food to homeless people out of the parks to the front of City Hall and, ultimately, indoors was blocked this morning by a federal judge.

Ruling from the bench after two days of testimony and an hour of oral argument, U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn said he saw no evidence feeding homeless people outside City Hall was any better or more dignified than on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

"It seems to me that . . . the parks provide more dignity than the concrete apron outside City Hall," Yohn said.

Yohn said his temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the new city ordinance would stay in effect until he filed a formal written opinion justifying his decision.

But the judge made it clear that his intention is to block enforcement for at least a year to give the city and representatives of various religious and secular homeless service providers the chance to create a long-term solution that would end distributing food to the homeless in public.

Lawyers for the city declined comment on the ruling and said Mayor Nutter's office would release a statement later.

Paul M. Messing, a Center City civil rights attorney who, with the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit challenging the June 1 ordinance, praised the ruling.

"I think this demonstrated that the city has failed to come up with any good reason to stop religious groups from doing - and what they will continue doing - on the parkway," Messing said.

Members of the four religious groups who were plaintiffs in the suit broke into applause after the hearing ended. All vowed to continue distributing food to homeless people on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Free Library.

Nutter's ordinance, which bans public feedings of groups of more than three people in any city park, took effect June 1. Its enforcement was stayed pending Yohn's ruling on its constitutionality. In the meantime, religious groups that have fed homeless people for years along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, between 16th and 20th Streets, have continued doing so without penalty.

Four groups - Chosen 300 Ministries, the Welcome Church, the King's Jubilee, and Philly Restart - sued challenging the ordinance, represented by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and lawyers from the Philadelphia civil rights firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

Nutter Administration officials have argued that the public feedings along the parkway - part of the 9,200-acre Fairmount Park - rob the homeless people of dignity, have the potential of spreading food-borne diseases and degrade the park landscape through overuse, trash and, at times, human waste.

Representatives of the religious groups testified that they have taken the city's free food-sanitation course and follow it in feeding the homeless and clean the area before and after the homeless get their meals.

What they will not compromise on, however, is what they described as a God-directed mission to minister to the needs of homeless people where they live - on the parkway.

It was for that reason, the clergy testified, that they have rejected Nutter's suggested transition option: temporarily letting homeless services groups conduct public feedings on the apron of City Hall near the north portal - not the west side as officials originally announced.

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

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