Northwest Philly homeless-outreach groups react to City’s permit proposal

Officials with organizations that help the homeless in Northwest Philadelphia have mixed feelings about a city proposal that would require people to obtain a permit before feeding the hungry outdoors.

Under a draft regulation recently adopted by the Board of Health, individuals, groups and organizations feeding three or more people would need an annual Outdoor Feeding Permit before hitting the streets.

Those interested in the permit would have to notify the city’s Department of Public Health of when, where and what they planned on serving. Someone on site would also have to complete an approved food-handling course. Also, all prep kitchens would need to be inspected.

Neighborhood reaction

The move has generated some controversy. City officials say the free permit and training would help ensure that important food-safety precautions were being taken. Some opponents have argued that the measure is a poor excuse to rid the museum-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway – a popular food distribution site – of homeless people.

Dr. Robert Emberger, executive director of the Whosoever Gospel Mission in Germantown, doesn’t think the city has an ulterior motive. He said he understands the interest in more regulation, especially with groups that serve hot food.

“If you’re handing out perishable food that’s hot, there is a risk,” said Emberger, whose nonprofit serves three meals a day. “All in-house facilities, we have to abide by those regulations ourselves.”

Emberger, however, isn’t completely sold on the idea of a permit. A number of grassroots and church-based groups often hand out food on the Parkway and other places on a whim. Requiring a permit may stunt some of that spontaneous goodwill.

“They’re groups that may just say, ‘Hey. Let’s go help the homeless,’ and they pile into the church van and come over and hand out stuff,” he said. “I think requiring a permit for that kind of thing might be a little bit too strict or rigid.”

Rachel Falkove, who heads the Northwest Interfaith Hospitality Network in Mt. Airy, also doesn’t outright oppose the city’s effort.

Some regulation, she said, may be needed, though she’d always prefer that people find a way to feed the homeless indoors. She said the spectacle of homeless people lining up for food outdoors isn’t dignified and tarnishes the city’s image.

“The more we do it, the more we invite people to live on the streets,” Falkove said. “It doesn’t offer additional options. It’s basically feeding people and not connecting with people.”

Does City have overarching plan?

It’s all part of what Falkove sees as evidence that the city still needs a strategy for addressing homelessness.

“It’s still not saying, ‘What is our Mayor and what is our city government doing about the fact that we have 25 percent of our people living at or below the poverty line?'” said Falkove. “We don’t have enough shelter space, we don’t have enough public feeding programs, we don’t have designated public spaces where hungry people can come and eat.”

Mark McDonald, spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, disagrees with Falkove, saying the city has a “well-developed” and “sophisticated” approach to helping the homeless find housing.

“From temporary shelter, to transitional and permanent housing, the City is working with a variety of non-profit and governmental agencies, including PHA, to help homeless people,” wrote McDonald in an email.

There will be a 30-day comment period before the Board of Health takes a final vote on the regulation. A concrete start and end date for that period has not yet been determined, said Jeff Moran, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Health.

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