Street Food for those in Need

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Seattle Times Columnist Danny Westneat has no shortage of opinions – some of them good, some not so good. But he’s dead on about the misguided plan to shutdown the city’s outdoor meal site by Feb. 29. This is something that the mayor’s office and the Human Rights Department abruptly proposed after seven months of what one thought was productive negotiation with the Meals Partnership Coalition and Operation Sack Lunch.

The partnership, which involves 23 churches and many hundreds of volunteers, serves approximately 150,000 meals a year to the needy and homeless in the core downtown area.

This outdoor feeding program has come under fire in past years and has been moved from place to place. Currently it is located at 6th and Columbia, under the freeway. At one time, it was located along side the old Public Safety Building at 4th and Columbia, since torn down. Then it was relocated to City Hall Park.

I recall 2004, when then Mayor Greg Nickels thought that it should be against the law to serve a warm meal at the park. At that time, he issued a release stating that volunteers would be arrested. So I called home and said I hoped they’d bail me out. I walked down to the park, intending to serve a meal, which I had done previously, fully expecting to end up in jail. However, by the time, I started dishing up cooked corn, sandwiched between then Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck and Father Michael Ryan of Saint James Cathedral, the mayor had changed his mind.

Later the outdoor feeding program was moved to the First Presbyterian Church parking lot at 8th and Columbia and then, eventually, to the under-Freeway location. The Meals Partnership Coalition had hoped to find a place where they could serve both indoor and outdoor meals from a community kitchen and had even proposed a plan that would share expenses with the city.

So it was an unpleasant surprise to find the organization caught off-guard by Human Services Department Director Danette Smith and Deputy Mayor Daryl Smith. The volunteers were told that, by serving outdoor meals, they were “disrespectful” of the needy and that what they were doing was “inhumane.” The Smiths (no relation) want the service to move indoors, possibly at two or three downtown locations. They also have proposed moving operations to the Indian Service Center Building, which Meals Partnership’s Shayne Kramer and Operation Sack Lunch’s Beverly Graham believe is unsuitable and located too far from the core downtown area.

Westneat’s column pointed out the irony of the Mayor’s Office celebrating outdoor eating at trendy food carts for paying customers at the same time wanting to shut down outdoor eating for the homeless. It does seem curious that the Mayor also has been a champion of Nickelsville, an outdoor encampment of homeless that probably also engages in outdoor consumption. Apparently, consistency is not as strong a precept here.

But that aside, I believe in putting my thoughts out there on this issue. I don’t believe there should be any shutdown of the program until and unless there is an adequate alternative. There should be no gap in service. And, while it would be ideal to offer indoor programs, there apparently continues to exist a need for outdoor meals as well. And, while we do hope to end homelessness with the 10-year plan, there are homeless on our streets and the least we can do is to ensure that they are fed, particularly since there are hundreds of volunteers willing to do so.

Councilmembers that I have heard from – Councilmember Sally Bagshaw for one —  have been equally strong on this issue.  There have been requests for briefings from the Human Service Department and from its director. The fact that the weather has been so lousy the last few days has delayed communications. But, remember, there are still hungry people and willing volunteers who are braving the weather for out-door meals and this needs to continue – must continue – until we have better alternatives.

Update: HSD Director Danette Smith announced that she has agreed to work with a taskforce of meal providers over the next six months to develop and implement a proposal made by Operation Sack Lunch.  The proposal calls for a centralized kitchen concept that would have an indoor and outdoor component. HSD has pledged to only relocate the outdoor meal program when they know that an alternative is in place to serve the same number of people who currently are served by the outdoor program.