A coordinated wave of Kansas City Health Department inspectors simultaneously shut down large picnics across the city Sunday that were serving food to homeless and hungry people.
On Monday, a city health official said they trashed the food out of concern for public safety.
The conflict between the food giveaway and health codes comes amid a cold rain that signaled the approach of winter, renewing an emotional debate over how a city manages its homeless population — many battling addictions and mental illness.
It looked ugly Sunday. Home-cooked chili, stacks of foil-wrapped sandwiches, vats of soup and other food prepared by volunteers with Free Hot Soup Kansas City were dumped in bags and soaked in bleach to make sure no one went back to try to recover it.
The inspectors were protecting the public health, Kansas City Director of Health Rex Archer said Monday.
People who are homeless, Archer said, would be at even greater danger in the event of an outbreak of food-borne illness, many not having access to health care.
“There is no question that feeding the homeless is critical,” he said. “There are 43 organizations (not including Free Hot Soup KC) that have permits and do it in a safe way.”
Free Hot Soup’s organizers and their sympathizers saw the breakup of the picnics as an end result of societal pressure to push away downtrodden and marginalized members.
“It’s about the criminalization of people who are homeless and the people who support them,” said Eric Garbison of the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker house in Northeast Kansas City. Many of the people who use Cherith Brook’s services were at Prospect Plaza Park Sunday at one of the picnics.
Repeated attempts over the years at banning shopping carts, streetside panhandling and street food services are part of a pattern, Garbison said, “to make illegal all things that make the homeless experience and give authorities the power to remove them.”
The conflicts build as winter comes, he said, because the forested covers many homeless people seek grow bare, becoming visible to uncomfortable communities.
Irate volunteers with Free Hot Soup KC characterized Sunday’s action as a city bust on what they say were large potluck dinners by people who want to help others in need.
“These are my friends,” said 28-year-old Nellie McCool of Merrriam, who started the first Free Hot Soup gatherings three years ago after the Royals won the World Series. She was stirred, she said, by the way “everyone felt such a sense of community.”
“We’re a community of people who feel it’s their passion to share with the most vulnerable people in our community,” she said.
“This is scaring all of us,” said Tara McGaw, 27, of Buckner, who started the gatherings in Belton. “We’re not an establishment. We’re not a not-for-profit. We’re just friends trying to help people on the side.”
While the group says it was surprised by the inspectors Sunday, some of its leadership had been mounting a fight against neighborhoods or city officials who were concerned with the growing size and number of the picnics.
The inspectors knew where to go — to Prospect Plaza Park, Ilus Davis Park, Winner Park near Independence, and a Northland location — because they were monitoring social media posts.
The inspectors were alerted after a Free Hot Soup leader told people at a September meeting of the North Blue Ridge Neighborhood Association that they were not going to comply with city rules.
The association, with the help of Missouri Rep. Ingrid Burnett, gathered city officials and social service providers with residents to air concerns about the prevalence of homeless people in and around Winner Park at Independence and Wallace avenues.
“Nobody wanted to take anything away from — or punish — the poor,” Burnett said. “We all know that we are one catastrophe away from being in the same boat.”
But residents who had concerns about property damage and safety “deserved to be heard,” she said.
The reason for gathering a wide representation of people was to work toward ways to better help people in need get services that would help them, said the neighborhood association president, Julie Boye.
“We don’t want to be run over with homeless people,” Boye said. “We wanted to work with them (service providers) about how best to help.”
The health and legality of Free Hot Soup KC’s efforts in the park were discussed, and the group said it did not have to comply with a permit process because they were not a food establishment. They were just friends who wanted to help people, and they intended to keep doing so.
The health department took note.
Archer said the city can’t allow food to be served publicly without affirming that the preparers are trained in safe food management, proper temperature controls and other defenses against contamination, and have an inspected kitchen.
Those social services that do earn a permit, if they don’t charge fees or pressure for donations, have their permit fee waived, he said.
If a group that wants to help can’t get a permit, they should support or volunteer with groups that have them, he said.
“We will help them comply,” Archer said. “There is a critical need, but it has to be done safely.”
Mayor Sly James tweeted his support of the department’s actions.
“Regarding the incident involving Free Hot Soup,” he said, “rules are there to protect the public’s health, and all groups must follow them, no exceptions.”
Free Hot Soup’s McCool said what happened Sunday was the city “bullying and flexing muscles.”
She thinks the large numbers of people now grouped in several Facebook pages across the Kansas City area will continue to want to share their food with others in need.
“We’re intending to come back,” she said. “They can expect us to fight for this right to share.”