Nearly every weekend morning for six years, church groups have passed out free biscuits and coffee to the homeless at Moore Square in downtown Raleigh, N.C. This Saturday at 9 a.m., when volunteers from Love Wins Ministries arrived, 100 sausage biscuits and coffee carafes in hand, Raleigh police officers met them on the sidewalk and threatened to arrest them if they passed out the food.
A city ordinance, officers said, banned food distribution in public parks.
Hugh Hollowell, an ordained Mennonite minister and the executive director of Love Wins, was outraged. The ordinance was no surprise — the city requires that groups purchase an $800 permit to use the park, and since that would require non-profits to pay $1,600 per weekend to distribute food, Love Wins never sets up in the park but on the sidewalk along its edge. $1,600 could, after all, buy a lot of biscuits and coffee.
More than 70 people had already lined up outside the park for the free breakfast when the cops issued their threat. Soup kitchens do not operate in the county or city on the weekends, and so the Love Wins breakfast is one of the only ways the homeless can have a free, warm breakfast on the weekends. Feeding the homeless, Hollowell told TIME, is a spiritual calling:
We believe the words of Jesus, who in Matthew 25:31-46 said that the way we treat the most vulnerable is the way we treat him. We pray, along with the prophet Isaiah, for the coming of the Day of the Lord, when all God’s children, rich and poor, will eat at a banquet together. But until that day comes, we are the means by which Jesus works in the world.
As we like to say, God has a plan for people who are hungry—God’s plan is us.
So, when the City of Raleigh is unwilling to feed its most vulnerable citizens, and then prevents us from feeding them as well, it is hard to interpret that as goodwill on their part. And if the City is unwilling to feed those people, the least they can do is not prevent us from doing so.
Hollowell posted the story of the police threat on the Love Wins blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed. Within hours, the blog site crashed with over 250,000 page views. He and his supporters then turned to the mayor’s office and the city council.
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane’s office said on its Facebook page: “Neither Mayor McFarlane nor the city council were involved with this decision, and the mayor has pledged to work toward connecting people in need with those who want to help in a way that works well for everyone.”
McFarlane met with Love Wins leadership Sunday night and promised that no one would be arrested. “We are grateful for the Mayor’s public promise that there will be no arrests, but we won’t be happy until all God’s children in Raleigh are provided for,” Hollowell says.
Love Wins is not the only group in Raleigh that has been told to cease and desist in recent weeks. Church in the Woods and Human Beans Together, two groups that also serve meals downtown, report being told to stop feeding the homeless without prior notice, too.
“Rather than threatening to arrest people for sharing food with people experiencing homelessness, these folks should be applauded for dealing with the hunger that is faced daily by the homeless population nationwide,” said Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Cities are just trying to cut off homeless people’s source of food in hopes of forcing them out of downtown areas.”
The City of Raleigh public affairs office issued a brief response to the situation on Monday afternoon:
We are fortunate to live in a compassionate city where so many groups work to help those less fortunate. […] The distribution of food in and around Downtown’s Moore Square Park is not without practical problems for city government. Public health and safety issues have arisen due to the large number of groups attempting to feed the less fortunate in Downtown Raleigh. Similar issues are faced by numerous cities across the country when well-intentioned organizations desire to use public property to help.
The City Council will discuss the issue at their regular meeting on Wednesday.