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Regulated Meal Programs Get Final Go Ahead

By Elizabeth Schneider

October 22 -- Television cameras, reporters and a long passionate speech by the mayor turned the normally routine second reading of an ordinance into a media event, before the City Council predictably voted Tuesday night to give final approval to a law that regulates public meal programs for the homeless.

The ordinance -- approved 5 to 2 -- makes it illegal to provide meals in a public park or space without County and City permits. The council also unanimously approved a law that tightens antiquated trespassing laws to prohibit sleeping between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. in storefront doorways in the Downtown if the entrance is posted with a sign barring such conduct. Both laws would impose a maximum $1,000 fine or up to six months in County jail, or both.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, who authored the ordinances, said that the law that regulates food distribution would only reinforce existing health code standards, which "to date have not been enforced" by the County.

With two local news cameras trained on the dais, Mayor Michael Feinstein denounced the City's first crackdown on the homeless in a decade, questioning the health premises behind the feeding ordinance and arguing that the process that led to its passage was "narrow," "premature" and "misinformed."

If massive food distribution were a health concern, Feinstein said, then the ordinance would have to include other public agencies, such as the school district. "There is no health situation," the mayor said. "[This ordinance] was denied fair discussion."

Only two food distributors were present at the October 8 council meeting to discuss the feeding programs leaving Feinstein "wholly unconvinced" that the matter received the full attention it deserved.

Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown, who is facing reelection on November 5, cast the other dissenting vote. McKeown briefly warned against making drastic changes without proper planning.

But any planning, said Councilman Ken Genser, was not possible. "It was clear that most, if not all of [those] providing services were not willing to engage in that [planning] process," Genser said.

The homeless feeding issue is susceptible to spin, Genser added. He reiterated that the City is not in fact cutting off food to people and spoke of the City's long track record in providing services to the homeless population.

With the passage of this ordinance, he said, the city is simply imposing regulations that are already in place. "To portray this as restricting food for homeless people is false," said Genser. "This is an appropriate measure to take."

Genser later added that in the past litigation "halted our efforts" to address the problems arising from the feeding programs. (A judge struck down a previous measure that restricted the number of people who could gather for the meals programs, finding the 1993 ordinance unconstitutional.)

Councilmen Richard Bloom and Herb Katz agreed with Genser.

"This is a well focused ordinance," said Bloom, who along with Council member Pam O'Connor cosponsored the ordinance. The new law, he said, is a result of problems that have been "percolating" for years and the city's own "reluctance to meet the issue head on… This ordinance is measured and reasonable" and "very much overdue," he added.

And while the city can not solve the numerous issues facing the homeless, "we can help," Bloom said. "We already do."

The City is not trying to stop the feeding programs," Katz said. It is "trying to control the situation… It's improper not to have the health department regulate [the distribution of food]," he said.

Although there have been no known cases of food poisoning, Katz said that it is up to the residents, the business people and "certainly the homeless to follow the law."

Although the second reading of the ordinance did not allow for public comment, certain members of the audience had a few choice words for the council members.

"Welcome to group therapy," Holbrook said of the audience outburst.

Feinstein argued that the recent complaints from the Bayside District and problems with the Promenade's center court, where "a small group of youths" tend to gather, is in no way connected to feeding programs offered in the city's parks.

The concerns of businesses along the Promenade, he said, have nothing to do with feeding programs "it's a question of urban design."

Concerns regarding feeding programs could have been addressed by enforcing existing laws instead of introducing a "narrowly misinformed" ordinance, he concluded.

The issue of feeding programs, which has been hotly debated over the past several months, was brought to a head earlier this month with the introduction of the ordinance, which makes it a misdemeanor to distribute food without County and City permits.
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