San Jose plans to end food giveaways for the homeless in St. James Park. The announcement earlier this week drew backlash from local activists and religious groups that hand out hundreds of meals a week at the downtown square.
A coalition of faith and community groups will distribute water and granola bars in protest at 1pm Friday, the same day Santa Clara County is expected to release numbers from the latest homeless census.
“It’s taking away our right to be of service to others and help their quality of life,” said Jamie Foberg, of In Their Shoes, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the homeless.
The crackdown comes amid public pressure to clean up St. James Park, said Sandy Perry, head of the Affordable Housing Network of Silicon Valley. Online posts on the Nextdoor community forum urge the city to “sweep the park,” “kick them out” and “take out the trash.”
Perry said that some of the comments call for enacting vagrancy laws or using Rudy Guiliani-style police tactics.
St. James Park has long attracted the city’s homeless population. Its downtown location puts it in proximity to social services, criminal and civil courts and public transit. City officials have urged activists to instead refer the homeless to established nonprofits—such as Loaves and Fishes or the Salvation Army—that provide food and other resources.
“Feeding our homeless must be done in a manner that is consistent and combined with the other wrap-around services that our homeless neighbors need to get back on their feet,” downtown Councilman Raul Peralez wrote in a letter to advocates earlier this week.
He cited health and safety concerns as one of the main reasons to stop the feedings. Later this summer, Peralez said, the San Jose Police Department will start enforcing a municipal code that prohibits distribution of un-permitted food in public parks.
“San Jose Municipal Code (SJMC) 13.33.090 prohibits the distribution of un-permitted food in park spaces,” he wrote. “This ordinance was not designed as a means to deter homeless individuals from parks but rather as a preventative health measure. Although I believe that having food is a human right and the need to provide our homeless neighbors sustenance is a must, I do not think that this is being achieved with the feedings at St. James Park. The feedings are well intentioned, but may not meet health regulations, lack consistency, and accountability if something were to occur to consumers.”
It should be noted, however, that a state law called the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects food donors from civil and criminal liability if the meal later causes harm to the recipient.
Perry said he suspects that the city’s recent deal to woo Google to downtown has something to do with the ban on homeless meal charity in the park.
“Advocates also suspect that the recent exclusive negotiating agreement with Google is encouraging the city to envision an upscale downtown where the working class, seniors, families with children, and people with disabilities will be banished and have no place,” he said. “The area’s housing and homeless service providers have nowhere near the capacity to serve such a large number of homeless, so the city appears to be embarking on a blame-the-victim approach to drive them out of town.”
Community groups plan to continue handing out food despite the threat of being ticketed.
“We have confidence that the vast majority of San Jose residents do not and will not support persecution of the homeless, and the churches and people of conscience who serve them,” Perry said. “We will not cooperate with any policies intended to rob the people of our city of their human rights and of their dignity as human beings.”
As SJPD’s plan to enforce the anti-feeding ordinance draws criticism, the agency is being praised for a new initiative that helps the homeless. This week, SJPD teamed up with homeless services nonprofit Abode Services to distribute care packages with socks and T-shirts to the unsheltered.
“While police are frequently called to enforce violations involving homeless persons, this is an opportunity for positive interaction and dialogue with law enforcement,” the department wrote on its Facebook page.