Local News

Raleigh relents on permit rules for helping homeless

Posted August 28, 2013 6:56 p.m. EDT
Updated August 29, 2013 4:51 a.m. EDT

— Days after volunteers said they were threatened with arrest for feeding homeless people in Raleigh's Moore Square, a City Council committee on Wednesday agreed to allow charitable groups to feed homeless people in the historic park without a permit.

Mary Ann Baldwin, chairwoman of the council's Law and Public Safety Committee, said she expects the full council to uphold that decision when it votes on the issue, which might not happen for several weeks. In the meantime, she said, city leaders are working toward a long-term solution.

Most of the members of the council were present when about 250 people packed a public hearing Wednesday to speak out about recent enforcement of an ordinance that prohibits the distribution of food in the city's parks without a permit.

The law has been on the books since 1998, but Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh says it's been passing out meals to the homeless in Moore Square for six years without a problem. About 30 charitable groups regularly feed people at the downtown park.

Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown said she met with officers on Friday to discuss raising awareness about the ordinance and instructed them to educate volunteers about park rules.

Several volunteers said they were told several times over the weekend as they moved from the square to an empty lot near it that they would be arrested if they didn't stop passing out the food and leave the area.

The police effort at education spurred a national reaction.

"It was clear in the meeting on Friday and to those engaged in the park that no citations would be issued, no arrests would be made," Deck-Brown said.

"When a large man with a gun tells me that I will not be permitted to do this and then tells me I will be arrested if I do this, I might think I'm breaking an ordinance," said Love Wins' director Rev. Hugh Hollowell.

The groups question why the law is suddenly being enforced and allege that downtown business owners want to keep homeless people from congregating in Moore Square.

Interim City Manager Perry James, however, has said the enforcement stems from a litter and rodent problem in the area.

Deck-Brown said Wednesday that the issue also comes down to safety. Since 2011, she said, there were 3,455 calls for service at Moore Square, compared to 536 calls at another downtown green space, Nash Park, over the same time period.

"We clearly know we cannot arrest, nor do we desire to arrest, our way out of any of this," she said.

Baldwin said she thinks a compromise can be reached between the groups, police department and city leaders.

"People here have a lot of passion, but they are also reasonable and they want to do the right thing," Baldwin said. "I think we're closer than most people realize to coming up with a solution."