By Jeeni Criscenzo
A recent post on the Facebook page for Homeless News San Diego showed a letter from the Rock Church regarding a change in policy for feeding homeless people. Part of one sentence was highlighted: refrain from feeding homeless people on the streets, as well as distributing items such as clothing and blankets. The post indicates there were 107 shares and 206 comments!
I can’t recall ever seeing an issue evoke such passionate responses from so many people with opposing, yet reasonable points of view. I read all of them, looking for something to convince me one way or the other, because this is something that has been troubling me since I attended a Downtown Fellowship of Churches and Ministries meeting about it two years ago.
Not being a church-goer, I felt a little out of my element at the meeting, but I appreciated learning about their plans for what would become Doing It Better Together to coordinate services provided to homeless people on the streets. Talk about feeding homeless people is very personal for me, as I imagine it is for many people who feel called to help the less fortunate. When I first decided to get involved in helping homeless people, I would bake up batches of my signature, organic-oat scones, tucking each one into a wax paper baggie with a little note taped to the outside saying: I made this for you because you matter.
I had taken the Food Handler’s course offered by the County and had my certificate with me, and I took my responsibility to not spread disease very seriously. Sometimes I would make brown bag lunches, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with my homemade whole wheat bread and an organic piece of fruit.
It felt good to share healthy food with people who were hungry. I enjoyed the opportunity to have one-to-one conversations with people and hoped that in some small way it made up for the abuse or snubbing that they often experienced. Later, when I volunteer with Julie Darling’s Just Call Us Volunteers to prepare meals in her professional kitchen to distribute at Stand Down and holidays at Neil Good Day Center, it seemed that personal contact was missing.
When I brought people along with me downtown for my food distribution runs, they often got hooked on helping homeless people. For many, the experience of feeding poor people on the street seems to be like a gateway drug to a lifetime of community service. So I was astonished to learn at that Downtown Fellowship meeting that there were so many rational reasons not to do it.
Most of the groups who prepare food for street distribution are not professional food preparers. I volunteered at one church that was making baloney and cheese sandwiches and was surprised that basic protocol for safe food handling, such as wearing gloves when handling food, was not being followed. And this was in a church kitchen. Just imagine what conditions could be in an individual’s kitchen.
Just because someone has been making dinner and desserts for their family for 40 years, doesn’t mean they know how to keep the public safe when it comes to food prep and distribution. We require people working in restaurants and catering facilities to be licensed. But who is checking the qualifications of the well-meaning people bringing food to the people on the streets?
Sure, you say, but when you’re hungry… I mean I’ve watched old women pick through the trash for a half-eaten sandwich. Yes, there is no question that we need to be providing food for the hungry. But what the Downtown Fellowship, the City and others are trying to do is find a way to do this that is safe for everyone. Imagine one sick person preparing food for distribution to this population that has compromised immune systems from the get go. Do you want to be the person that starts an epidemic that wipes out our homeless population?
Come to think of it, when we have sickos that think it’s OK to go into bible study meetings to shoot and kill people, what’s to stop some nut from deliberately killing off our homeless neighbors with contaminated food?
Another big negative to free-for-all food distribution is that it’s not getting to the people who need it most. I’ve learned that group after group will show up at the most obvious places downtown to give out food. Often people will have just finished eating one group’s handouts when another will pull up with something else. Street people don’t have a way of storing food and most are not of the mindset to be cleaning up. So all of that well-intended food becomes piles of trash that attracts bugs and rodents and costs taxpayers lots of money to clean up. No wonder downtown businesses want us to stop street feeding!
It’s not like there are not places to get food downtown. Fr. Joes serves over 3,000 meals every day. But there are people who won’t go to Fr. Joes or God’s Extended Hand for food. They have a list of excuses that make sense to them. That’s unfortunate, because if they went to these places they might be able to access other services. And maybe if street feeding wasn’t so abundant, they might get hungry enough to try one of the organized and safe places to eat.
The sad part is that there are so many families who don’t have enough to eat, but they are not living on the sidewalk, so street feeders don’t get to them. And many of them are not living close to Fr. Joe’s and can’t bring their families there for food. San Diego Unified School District provides free breakfast and lunch to low-income children every school day. What are these kids and their parents getting for dinner, or on the weekends, or summer recess? The week before their benefit check comes, many families are lucky to subsist on rice, tortillas and pasta.
Rather than put all of their effort into Fr. Joe’s feeding program, that already has a crowd, I would like to see the Rock Church and other well-meaning organizations who want to help our less fortunate neighbors, organize meal centers throughout the county, similar to what Neighborhood House does for seniors. Healthy food could be properly and safely prepared and served in each neighborhood so families could walk there or take the bus.
Sometimes, when I would stop by at Amikas House in the evening, I would watch the moms come home from work, having picked up their kids from the Boys and Girls club or child care. They looked exhausted. And they would have to figure out what to feed their kids with what little they had. What if even one or two evenings a week they could go to a neighborhood meal center where they could pick up a hot and healthy meal for their family? What if we organized this so there were more opportunities on the last and first week of the month? Being able to spend less on food would mean these poor families could pay the rent and not become homeless!
I created a website called KitchenCommons.org that is designed so people could find where food is being distributed and served on any particular day in any particular section of the county. Right now it doesn’t have any listings, but I am offering it to the community as a tool for organizing food and meal distribution. I still need to build the part where organizations update their information.
My conclusion is that the letter from the Rock Church is a step in the right direction. But I’d hate to see San Diego become like St. Petersburg, Florida where they are arresting people for feeding the poor. We don’t need any more reasons to arrest good people or to criminalize being homeless. We just need to be creative about how we can help people, better.