Healthier for the homeless to be fed indoors

Serving food outdoors without the proper facilities may seem more convenient, but it increases the chances of food-borne illnesses. (John Overmyer)

Like the troubled individuals they often serve, the Good Samaritans doling out free sandwiches to the homeless along Philadelphia’s signature boulevard may need a little tough love. That describes Mayor Nutter’s smart decision to ban food handouts in city parks, which includes the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

After several years of trying to persuade community and church-based volunteer groups to move indoors willingly with their feedings of hundreds of people, Nutter needed to kick it up a notch.

The ban becomes effective in about a month. Making the Parkway off-limits has long been the goal of city tourism boosters, and even some homeless advocates, who see the handouts as undignified for the homeless and damaging to the city’s image. Brown-bag lunches, family picnics, and other public events are still OK.

With the spring opening of the $200 million Barnes Foundation building imminent, it’s even more imperative that the city find appropriate settings to aid the homeless. While the mayor says that the Barnes opening isn’t driving his policy, it’s a simple fact that visitors to the city bring in revenue that can be used to provide municipal services such as those offered to the homeless.

Had the volunteer groups gone along with earlier pleas for cooperation, of course, Nutter’s move wouldn’t have been necessary. It’s just common sense that it would be better to provide meals in sheltered settings where food safety can be assured.

Feeding the homeless at churches and mission settings such as the Broad Street Ministry’s facility also provides the opportunity to offer the counseling that the homeless need to get off the streets and possibly into treatment and job programs.

Nutter’s initiative won’t mean the end of outdoor feedings, inasmuch as he plans to set aside space outside City Hall for groups that insist on continuing curbside food service. At the same time, though, the Board of Health is drafting sensible new rules requiring permits and kitchen inspections for any large group feeding people outdoors.

The city’s top health official, Deputy Mayor Donald F. Schwarz, says to help reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses, the newly required food-handling training will be offered free as an incentive.

Rather than spur more confrontation over this issue, the park-feeding ban should be the catalyst for volunteers to look for ways to continue their good works, but by linking up with church and other groups that serve indoors.