Volunteer group is taking the City of Portland to court to serve food in parks

By CORY ELIA

An image from a Free Hot Soup serving in Directors Park in late October, with people waiting to eat in the background.

Volunteers from the group Free Hot Soup are intending on taking the City of Portland to court over attempts to restrict their ability to serve meals to the houseless of Portland, according to a press release by the Oregon Justice Resource Center. There are a dozen plaintiffs suing the city according to the press release.

The release states, “a group of Portland volunteers is suing the City of Portland to protect the rights of people to provide vital free food services and other necessities for people who are houseless or otherwise food insecure. Their lawsuit asks the courts to block and declare unconstitutional a proposed new policy from Parks & Recreation that would place unfair restrictions and burdens on voluntary groups who provide food to people at city parks.”

Village Portland reports: Volunteer groups are determined to keep feeding houseless despite new City rules

City municipalities across the country have tried to keep volunteer service groups from feeding the houseless, and Portland’s Commissioner Nick Fish, who heads Parks, is just the latest of many to create new rules that would establish limitations. The City’s plan for Social Service Permits came to light at the end of October, first reported by the Oregonian/OregonLive.

The new regulation requiring the permits would take effect December 1, 2019 and was approved by Parks Director Adena Long in October according to Commissioner Fish’s Chief of Staff Sonia Schmanski.

According to Schmanski “We have reached out to Free Hot Soup to better understand their concerns.” And further says, “Commissioner Fish has pledged to help them secure funds for insurance, and to connect with downtown property owners who may be interested in hosting them indoors.”

When the new regulations were announced, it seemed like it was aimed at one specific group named Free Hot Soup who serve meals to the houseless community members of Portland’s Downtown in Directors Park five nights a week. The volunteers have been serving here for over six years and the new regulations require them to get a permit to serve.

See interviews with Free Hot Soup volunteers in the video above.

To obtain the permit the group would have to follow food-handling regulations, obtain liability insurance (which group members have expressed isn’t available to Free Hot Soup because it’s not an official non-profit), and it will further limit them to being able to serve only a single night per week.

Email’s obtained by Willamette Week confirmed this was true. The emails showed that establishments surrounding the park had complain not only to City Commissioner Nick Fish but also to the Portland Business Alliance about the number of houseless individuals. The PBA’s President Jon Isaacs further pressed Fish to stop Free Hot Soup’s meal services.

Also affected by this policy change are the groups Help 4 Houseless and Beacon PDX who distribute food camp to camp and were recently attempting to start serving in parks.

Despite the new regulations from Fish’s office, Free Hot Soup volunteers have expressed that they plan to ignore the threats of fines and continue their work. They also wish for it to be known that they aren’t an official non-profit organization and just a loose gathering of concerned and compassionate citizens wishing to provide other citizens with a meal.

In looking into the results of other attempts by municipalities to stop meals service, it becomes apparent that Fish’s attempts might actually be a violation of the constitution, specifically the First Amendment. It has been declared in other districts, besides United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which oversees Oregon, that feeding the houseless is a form of political expression and therefore protected under the freedom of speech. 

Fort Lauderdale, Florida is a prime example of this. The local chapter of Food Not Bombs were the targets of an ordinance by the City of Fort Lauderdale. They fought it and won the case in Eleventh Circuit’s courts.

If the Free Hot Soup case makes its way to the Court of Appeals, the City’s rules could also be declared unconstitutional— like what happened in Fort Lauderdale.

These groups feel City government isn’t doing enough to provide for their most vulnerable citizens, and feeding the hungry is an act of political expression.

Volunteers serve meals at a Free Hot Soup serving in Directors Park in late October.

Advocates and activists going against the City of Portland for the way they treat they houseless here have been saying that the city government is unduly influenced by the Portland Business Alliance. The email exchange and actions by Fish suggest these concerns may be semi-valid.

Research by a graduate student at Portland State University named Kaitlyn Dey shows how the Portland Business Alliance runs the downtown business district as a Business Improvement District and advocates aggressively for anti-houselessness policies downtown like no sit or lay regulations.

“This is what happens when you prioritize businesses over people” stated Juan C. Chavez, Director of Civil Right with the Oregon Justice Center in an interview with Village Portland. Chavez went on to say, “due to reportings, it is obvious that Fish had been in communication with the business alliance for a while and could have addressed this properly.”

Chavez points to the Fort Lauderdale case, but also a case out of San Diego, as examples similar to what is happening with Free Hot Soup. San Diego’s case involves a church who had their meals services shut down after pressure from local police due to its proximity to a scheduled Major League Baseball All-Star game.

San Diego and Portland’s situation share a commonality in that they are both cities catering to the interests of larger, richer entities while ignoring the needs of their most vulnerable citizens.

“It’s confusing to me why the city would do this when they’ve acknowledged the homelessness problem,” Chavez stated.

In the press release Chavez is quoted as saying “Our clients’ rights to band together to help their community who are hungry are being infringed by this new policy. The City cannot place these types of speech restrictions on Portlanders who limit their engagement to peaceful, socially useful activities such as feeding people. Compassionate assistance for the houseless may not translate into dollars and revenue for the City like business activities do, but its high value to community should be protected.”

Chavez concluded his quote by saying “We demand more and expect better from our elected leaders.”

An sign from a Free Hot Soup serving in Directors Park in late October.

***

Cory Elia is a journalist, photographer, videographer, documentary director & producer, radio personality & podcaster. His journalistic focus is on politics, protest, and poverty.

Contact Cory:

Facebook: Cory Elia
Twitter: @therealcoryelia


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