POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 22, 2011
Charitable organizations that feed the homeless in city parks have indicated they will ignore Gov. Neil Abercrombie's plea to halt their activities. While their hearts are in the right place, their actions can enable homelessness among some who could help themselves.
On a practical level, these charitable groups risk creating a legal battle they could lose if the state and city should choose to use a recent ruling as leverage to achieve the goal. Organizations that feed should coordinate with, rather than oppose, the state and city, keeping in sight the need to end homelessness and to keep public parks safe and clean for all.
The full 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Atlanta ruled unanimously last month that restrictions on feeding the homeless in city parks are proper. The decision approved an Orlando, Fla., ordinance that limits a group to only two days of feeding a year at each park in its downtown district, which includes the signature Lake Eola Park.
The groups claimed the 2006 ordinance violated the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment, but Circuit Judge William Pryor, who wrote the 10-judge opinion, noted that the downtown district has 42 parks and there are 66 unrestricted parks in the city, which "leaves open ample channels of communications."
"This was a strong and unequivocal ruling that the city did the right thing," Orlando City Attorney Mayanne Downs told the Orlando Sentinel. "We're happy for cities around the state and nation that will now have very clear guidance."
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, with jurisdiction that includes Hawaii, has not ruled on the issue. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged a Las Vegas outright ban on feeding the homeless in city parks, among other park rules. A federal judge lifted the 2006 feeding ban four years ago and an appeal to the 9th Circuit was withdrawn last year when the two sides agreed on rules that don't include a feeding ban.
In announcing its 90-day plan on homelessness in Hawaii, the Abercrombie administration called on the dozens of churches and other organizations to stop feeding homeless people around the state. Marc Alexander, the state's coordinator on homelessness, said that feeding the homeless where they congregate merely draws more homeless people to specific areas.
One of the prime areas for the homeless, of course, is at Kapiolani Park, at the heart of Hawaii's struggling tourism industry. Bob Erb, chief executive of Kingdom of Heaven Ministries, says his group will continue to serve meals every night at the park despite those concerns.
The Rev. Sadrian "Brother Sage" Chee's Church of Living Ohana, Family of the Living God, regularly feeds low-income people, senior citizens and the homeless at Chinatown's Aala Park. That brings up the important point that not all needy people are homeless, but may be on the cusp. In such situations, a better solution needs to be sought — one that is accessible and under-roof, not out in the public streets and parks.
Some organizations that provide services to the homeless are cognizant that feeding them in parks actually encourages them to continue their way of life. The Institute of Human Services used to feed people at Aala Park but now has refrained from that practice, recognizing that it is enabling their homelessness.
Those who are ignoring the state's call for a stop to the feeding of the homeless in parks should recognize that the 90-day plan by the Abercrombie administration could be turned into a deadline if they refuse to cooperate. Hawaii's city and county councils should be prepared to take action if organizations insist on hindering, rather than helping, the effort against homelessness.