Raleigh, N.C. — A spokesman for the Raleigh Police Department says a police officer was enforcing a city ordinance when he reportedly told, without explanation, a group of volunteers Saturday that they could be arrested for serving breakfast to the homeless.
Love Wins Ministries posted on its website Saturday that the officer approached them as they were preparing to pass out free coffee and sausage biscuits to more than 70 homeless people in downtown Raleigh.
"This morning we showed up at Moore Square at 9:00 a.m., just like we have done virtually every Saturday and Sunday for the last six years," the ministry's pastor and director, Rev. Hugh Hollowell, wrote in a blog post. "Today, officers from Raleigh Police Department prevented us from doing our work, for the first time ever. An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested."
Hollowell said the officers wouldn't tell the group which ordinance they were violating, but simply told them they had to leave.
Sec. 9-2022 of the rules governing city parks prohibits the distribution of food without a permit.
"No individuals or group shall serve or distribute meals or food of any kind in or on any City park or greenway unless such distribution is pursuant to a permit issued by the Parks, Recreation and Greenway Director," the ordinance states.
Police spokesman Jim Sughrue said in an email Sunday that no one was arrested and that the group was "simply informed" of the rules, which have been on the books since 1998.
"Work is ongoing with those involved, some of whom are developing alternative sites," Sughrue said. "Ultimately, the ordinance is a city issue, of course, and when final determinations are made, the police department works with everyone to handle things in the smoothest way possible."
Love Wins is one of a number of nonprofits who help feed the homeless near Moore Square on weekends.
Todd Pratt, a volunteer with Human Beans Together, said his group was also notified recently that it could no longer serve the homeless on public property. On Sunday, the group moved to a private parking lot across the street from Moore Square, but police also asked them to leave that area.
"We had lots of volunteers and lots of hungry people and nowhere to go," Pratt said.
William McLaurin, who owns the private lot, allowed the volunteers to stay, but said he was worried about liability issues in the future.
Berrie Alston and Raheen Andrews say they are grateful for meals from volunteers.
"This is the only place that some people can go for a meal," Alston said. "They are trying to push us out of the park."
"If the people want to come out and choose to give us some food or anybody some food, why would you stop them?" Andrews asked.
Love Wins and Human Beans say police cited excessive litter in the area on Mondays as a reason for the crackdown, but organizers say they always clean up the mess after serving a meal. They believe the move has to do with the city's revitalization efforts in the area.
"The police are caught up in a system. The police work for the mayor and the City Council," Hollowell said. "(They are) ultimately responsible to the developers who spend lots and lots of money to revitalize downtown."
Mayor Nancy McFarlane met with Hollowell at Moore Square Sunday afternoon and said she is eager to find a way for the group to continue its ministry.
"What people heard yesterday was the police department trying to let everyone know (that) this is the existing ordinance, and this is why it's not really working right now," McFarlane said. "We're going to work on a better way."
Earlier Sunday, she posted a statement to her Facebook page saying that neither she nor City Council were involved in the decision to prevent the groups from feeding the homeless.
"Raleigh is a progressive city that believes in the values of each of its citizens," she said. "We are so fortunate to have dedicated citizens that want to reach out to those in need. We will be taking this issue into the Law and Public Safety Committee immediately to bring all the partners together for a transparent discussion to work out a plan to address the questions surrounding this issue."
City Council member Bonner Gaylord also took to Facebook Sunday to address the matter, saying he was still trying to figure out what happened.
"It's important for us to maintain a clean and safe environment in our city, especially in our parks," Gaylord posted. "However, we cannot let those who are in the most need go without help."
McFarlane and Gaylord's statements came after Love Wins' blog post caused a firestorm on social media.
"Unbelievable! It's sad that there's no care or compassion for people!" Chris White wrote on WRAL's Facebook page.
"This is so outrageous," Mariane Z. Franks posted. "Hopefully the City of Raleigh will relook at this ordinance that is clearly (an) overreach at best. Disgusting. Shame on the City of Raleigh."