Kansas City’s attempt to restrict good deeds is the wrong way to deal with homeless issues

06/04/2014 5:16 PM

06/05/2014 1:39 PM

Though well-intentioned, an ordinance in front of the Kansas City Council is overbearing in its attempt to regulate efforts by groups and individuals to serve food to homeless and needy persons.

The ordinance, which has been in the works for more than a year, began as a response to neighborhood complaints about trash and sanitation problems in areas where homeless people congregate. Attention focused on the many charitable programs offering food to people on the streets. They range from sandwiches handed out by individuals to trucks operated by social service organizations that deliver meals to camps and other locations daily.

The council could vote as early as Thursday to require a “food-sharing” permit to carry out such efforts. Food would have to be prepared in a kitchen that has passed a city inspection, labeled with the name of the “permittee,” be kept either hot or cold until served and disposed of within four hours after being removed from temperature control.

People managing the food-sharing operations, though not all of the volunteers, would be required to take the city’s food safety training course.

The ordinance specifies that food-sharing permits would be issued annually at no cost. But for many organizations the cost of bringing kitchens and cooking facilities into compliance could run into the thousands of dollars.

A positive provision in the proposed ordinance directs the city manager to work with the Homeless Services Coalition of Greater Kansas City to provide regular training sessions for groups seeking effective ways to help the needy.

There is merit to the argument that assistance to the homeless in Kansas City focuses too much on food handouts, and that groups could perhaps do more good by working on shelter, mental health and other needs. Better coordination among groups that serve food would also be helpful.

Still, restricting the ability of individuals and groups to carry out charitable ventures of their choosing seems heavy-handed and potentially harmful.

In discussions on the ordinance, no one cited an instance in Kansas City of charitable meals causing a food-borne outbreak. But hard-core homeless individuals who won’t go into shelters may seek more dangerous options — like dumpsters — if the city makes it too difficult for groups to serve food on the streets. Also, volunteers and staffers who take food to the homeless are sometimes able to get them to accept medical and other forms of help.

Concerns about trash, filth and crime around homeless camps are certainly valid, and speak to the need for more low-income housing, mental health services and professional outreach. But if the crux of the problem is littering and loitering, the city should target those offenses by aggressively enforcing existing ordinances, not by making potential lawbreakers of well-meaning volunteers.

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