Charities want Raleigh leaders to provide food handout site downtown

ccampbell@newsobserver.comOctober 11, 2013 

— Charity groups and downtown business owners came together Thursday night to consider possible locations for feeding the homeless, and city-owned property appears to be the most popular option.

City officials split the meeting into three small groups to brainstorm new locations, noting that the eventual renovation of Moore Square will close the downtown park where many of the food handouts currently take place.

The most talked-about spot is across from Moore Square: the former Salvation Army building that the city now owns. The city’s ultimate goal is to sell the site for redevelopment, but until then it’s sitting vacant.

But Scott Payne, a parks department leader, said turning the building into a feeding site could pose a challenge.

“The interior at this time is not being maintained,” he said. “It’s just enough to keep the building from deteriorating.”

The Salvation Army parking lot is where some of the groups tried to move after they reportedly were threatened with arrest for handing out food in Moore Square. But city officials wouldn’t allow use of the parking lot either, citing liability concerns.

The other city property mentioned Thursday was Raleigh City Hall on West Hargett Street. Proponents of the idea noted that the building is empty on weekends and has a covered area outside where charities could congregate in the rain.

Downtown churches were also listed as another option, though liability insurance would likely need to be arranged first.

Whatever locations are selected as an alternative to Moore Square, charities say the handouts should be available to everyone – regardless of whether they struggle with addiction.

“We would like to have a comprehensive inventory of possible sites within a particular proximity to Moore Square,” said Debra King of the nonprofit CASA, who led one of the discussion groups. “It has to be free to access it, and it can’t be far from Moore Square. The group was really clear that we didn’t want it to be a (gender) segregated attempt.”

Another concern is whether the feeding site should be indoors. While an inside location would likely offer better access to restrooms and hand-washing facilities, some said that many homeless people suffer from mental illness and aren’t comfortable going indoors.

King also pointed out that trust issues remain a problem between city leaders and charity groups after the police action in August. Some of the charities at Thursday’s meeting said they still want to know more about why the city suddenly decided to enforce its ordinance banning food distributions without a permit.

Dana Youst, the city’s Community Oriented Government coordinator, pointed to large sheets of paper posted on the wall of the meeting room. The posters listed concerns expressed at a community meeting in summer 2012, ranging from littering issues to crime problems. Attended by 93 people, Youst said those concerns were what prompted the “educational” campaign about city ordinances.

“I think it’s important to go back to 2012,” she said. “This is what was brought forward at that meeting. Until we understand that as a group, we cannot move forward, and we have to move forward as a group.”

But Carmen Zepp of Human Beans Together said she’s not sure why city officials keep hearkening back to a single meeting that took place more than a year ago.

“We’ve had many other meetings since with many more people in attendance,” she said. “I don’t buy it, and I think it’s just covering up what the real reason is.”

A final meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Oct. 22 at Marbles Kids Museum, when the groups will finalize recommendations to present to the Raleigh City Council.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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