The traveling soup kitchen under fire

Adam Ripley cooks a mean breakfast. And in the spirit of the Bible, he shares his eggs, sausage, and orange juice with the homeless of this Appalachian city.

But his Saturday morning feedings became so popular that the city booted him from Pritchard Park, a downtown hang-out, to suburban Aston Park, where a limited number of people come by.

"It's infuriating, because they're deliberately pushing us out of the way," the college student says, after a recent breakfast at Aston. "Plus we don't get as much foot traffic out here."

Asheville is one of several cities that is cracking down on mobile soup kitchens – "soupmobiles" – especially those stationed too close to established neighborhoods or high-rent districts.

•In Las Vegas, feeding too many homeless people without a permit could mean a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail after the city council banned mobile feeding in July. (The ordinance does not affect the Las Vegas Strip.)

•In Dallas, new feeding zones were put in place in February in outlying parks while pushing soupmobiles outside downtown areas.

•Orlando, Fla., in July banned large-scale feedings from 42 of 99 city parks.

•In Atlanta and Venice, Calif., city authorities have chased people who feed the homeless from public parks, say homeless relief agencies.

"These attitudes have been building for a long time, and it's related to increasing income inequalities where there's a sense of people who are very poor as being 'other' and not being our brothers and sisters," says Donna Friedman, director of the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Supporters say the crackdowns infringe on free- assembly rights and their desire to aid their fellow man in accordance with the Bible. Cities say the mobile canteens lure the homeless away from the public-health providers and shelters that can provide long-term solutions.

In Las Vegas, city officials cite one example of how mobile feeding can be counterproductive. By setting up in Huntridge Park, the group Food Not Bombs, which serves vegetarian meals to the homeless, was interfering with shelters and support services, says city attorney Brad Jerbic. The city has spent $14 million since 1999 to help homeless people get back on their feet.

Food Not Bombs, a grass-roots organization, is planning to protest the ordinance Aug. 10.

In July, Las Vegas city marshals cited 10 people, including a local talk show host and a TV crew, for feeding the homeless in a city park. "[The mobile soup kitchen] is counterproductive to helping the homeless," says Mr. Jerbic.

Others disagree and point out that mobile soup kitchens can be part of a broader plan to help some 3.5 million Americans who are homeless for at least part of the year.

Cities including New York, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, and Columbus, Ohio, have managed to reduce homelessness by as much as 13 percent for children and 9 percent for adults, reports the National Alliance to End Homeless.

"Some extraordinary activities in many cities ... are focused on finding ways for people who have been ... homeless for a long time to get into housing and support services rather than waiting for people to get their lives together," says Ms. Friedman. "[Feeding bans] speak more to cities trying to hide the problem of homelessness rather than effectively deal with it."

Asheville is not hiding from its homeless problem, city officials say. It has a 10-year plan to eradicate homelessness with the help of area shelters and service providers.

"There is an element of discrimination among some of the people who want mobile soup kitchens moved out of parks, but I don't think that's where [Asheville] city officials were coming from," says Brownie Newman, a city councilor.

Yet city officials are wrong to take such action, some say. What may appear as a homeless get-together could be a gathering of street-wise intellectuals, says the Rev. Amy Cantrell of the Zacchaeus House ministry in Asheville. Sharing food can also be a biblical way of dissolving stereotypes of the poor, she says.

"It's fundamentally an issue about religious freedom," says Ms. Cantrell. "Some people say, we don't want tourists to look at the soupmobile and see that people are hungry in Asheville, but I ... say, 'Don't you want people to see a city that is compassionate and shares food with the hungry?' "

Others who support mobile feeding have a different view. Dallas correctly balanced the concerns of the downtown businesses and the people who provide food for the homeless, says David Timothy, who owns a soupmobile there.

"Some of the mobile feeders are 100 percent committed to the homeless, but that's to the exclusion of everything else, including the tax base and tourism," says Mr. Timothy. "You soon realize the stronger the city is financially, the more they can ultimately do for the homeless in the long run."

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