Does a Columbia ordinance pose a roadblock to feeding homeless people in Finlay Park? Volunteers with Food Not Bombs say it could have, until they worked around it to continue providing free home-cooked meals every Sunday. But city officials say park permit rules don’t even apply to that.
By Anthony Scannella
Nov. 23, 2015
It’s Sunday just before 1 p.m. and volunteers are lining up meal after meal on the tables set up under a small gazebo near Finlay Park’s entrance.
A crowd lines up, and as the clock strikes 1, Judith and Tom Turnipseed and the rest of the volunteers from the South Carolina chapter of Food Not Bombs start handing out free home-cooked meals. Pasta, mashed potatoes, chicken salad sandwhiches, macaroni and cheese – every kind of food you could want.
“It’s about more than just eating, it’s about getting to know people who you may not think are like you,” Judith Turnipseed says. “It’s about overcoming stereotypes, and finding out that you’re more alike than different.”
What remains unclear is whether what Food Not Bombs is doing potentially violates a 2014 city ordinance that requires groups to buy a $120 permit for any gathering of 25 or more people in a park.
Turnipseed said the weekly fee would have been financially ruinous and that after meeting with and pressuring city officials, including a threat to sue, Food Not Bombs now can apply for a permit – for free – every three months.
“You go to court as a last resort. That doesn’t mean you back down,” she said.
But Pearl Osborne, the parks department’s administrative secretary for facility rentals, said the $120 fee doesn’t apply to Food Not Bombs.
“I don’t know if they will have to in the future, but they are not paying anyone within the city of Columbia,” Osborne said.
She said the ordinance applies only to festivals and concerts. But Turnipseed said that every three months, when Food Not Bombs applies and receives a permit, it also gets a letter from the city saying the group is violating the ordinance and may have to pay in the future.
The ordinance’s wording appears to be broad: “Any person, group, association or organization desiring to use any park or recreational facility of the City of Columbia for a group of 25 individuals or more or to conduct an activity or event for which it could be reasonably assumed that 25 or more persons might gather at a park or recreational facility to participate in or witness such an event or a festival … shall first apply and obtain a permit from the director of parks and recreation or his designee.”
The city attorney’s office did not respond to repeated messages seeking clarification.
The uncertainty comes as local laws to block the feeding of homeless people have become more prevalent, and as fines and arrests have drawn national attention.
A San Antonio, Texas chef recently was arrested for distributing food to homeless people. He faces a possible $2,000 fine or jail. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a 90-year-old man has been arrested three times for defying the city’s food-sharing ban.
More than 70 cities nationwide have a similar ordinance, the National Coalition for the Homeless says. Proponents say the laws preserve residents’ quality of life and make sure the food homeless people are eating is safe.
“But there are virtually no cases of homeless people being fed unsafe food, at all,” said Megan Hustings, the coalition’s interim director.
At Finlay Park, the line, often upwards of 100 people, moves along in an orderly way. A volunteer distributes numbered tickets and loudly calls out the numbers (video) so people can come and be served. Volunteers stop and talk to some of their friends, people they’ve been distributing food to for years.
“It gets in your blood, it’s something fun to do,” says Norris Burton, a volunteer since 2005.
Gadson Bennett, who has been coming for the meals for about three years, says he became homeless about five years ago. He says that during the week, he gets food from various churches. But this is his favorite food-sharing event.
“We probably eat better here than the average person would at the Vista,” he says with a smile.
Columbia passed its ordinance after increasing complaints about the number of homeless people downtown.
The permits require 15 days’ notice. The fee could easily have drained the finances of Food Not Bombs, where volunteers pay for most things out of pocket, Turnipseed said.
“We’re a very informal organization, she said. “If you were to come up to one of us and ask who’s in charge, they’d probably laugh at you.”
Turnipseed said she thought the group was able to work around the ordinance because it has shared food in Finlay Park since 2002 and has taken note of complaints from residents of adjacent Arsenal Hill about noise and too many people wandering the edge of the neighborhood.
Food Not Bombs moved the meals to the park’s gazebo, farther from the Arsenal Hill side, she said.
Trash, disorderly conduct and noise have all been neighborhood concerns, said Bob Wynn, Arsenal Hill Neighborhood Association vice president.
“I will say that there has been a history of concern about feeding in public places where it might have disrupted the climate within any community,” Wynn said.
In the meantime, Bennett is thankful the meals are still there every Sunday.
“People fall into situations; the main problem is the city isn’t doing anything to help them,” he said. “I’m grateful for groups like this; I think they’re necessary.”