Raleigh, N.C. — The Raleigh City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee will convene Wednesday for a special meeting following a local nonprofit group's claim over the weekend that a police officer threatened to arrest volunteers for feeding the homeless in the city's historic Moore Square.
Interim City Manager Perry James said Monday that the three-member panel will discuss how nonprofits can continue their work providing food to those in need while also abiding by a city ordinance that prohibits the distribution of food without a permit.
On Saturday, Rev. Hugh Hollowell, director of Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh, posted in a blog that volunteers were told by officers, without explanation, that they needed to leave and would be arrested if they tried to distribute free coffee and sausage biscuits to approximately 70 people waiting in a line.
The ministry has been handing out food near Moore Square for six years, he said in the blog. He added that obtaining a permit would cost $1600 every weekend and that an officer told him that the city "likely wouldn't approve it anyway."
James said Monday that police have recently started informing people about the ordinance, which has been around since 1998, as the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department tries to work on a litter and rodent problem in the area.
Other nonprofits say they were recently notified about the ordinance, and James said the city's efforts to clean up Moore Square are nothing new. The four-acre tract is one of Raleigh's original downtown parks that serves as the venue for a number of public events.
It's also a common place for the homeless to gather, and downtown advocates say the goal isn't to get rid of the homeless but to keep the area clean.
"I haven't heard from a business owner that has said, 'We are opposed to the feedings," said David Diaz, president and chief executive officer of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing downtown. "Everybody is supportive of the feedings. The dicey part is having so many in one location."
Raleigh does have a soup kitchen, the Shepherd's Table Soup Kitchen, at 121 Hillsborough St., but it operates only on weekdays, when it serves an average of about 320 meals a day – a 22 percent increase over last year.
Executive Director Tamara Gregory said that as a result of the weekend encounter and the city beginning to enforce the ordinance, the staff and board of directors are discussing opening on the weekend.
"It's very disheartening when people are being threatened with jail when they are trying to make the system better," she said.
A spokeswoman for the city parks department declined to comment Monday, as did Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown who referred all questions to Perry.
He declined to comment further on Monday and referred questions to Mayor Nancy McFarlane.
She also was unavailable for comment Monday but said Sunday that she hopes the parks department and the groups can resolve the situation.
"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."