Philadelphia’s recently enacted ban on feeding the homeless in public is now the subject of litigation, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on June 5 filed a federal complaint against the city and Mayor Michael Nutter challenging the constitutionality of the controversial measure.
The ban, which prohibits outdoor feeding in all city parks, went into effect June 1.
The measure was fraught with controversy since day one by those who believe it was passed as a way to keep Philadelphia’s homeless residents from occupying the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which is home to the new Barnes Foundation Museum.
The city has denied that accusation.
On Tuesday, the City of Philadelphia and its mayor were named as defendants in a lawsuit jointly filed by the ACLU and attorneys from the city firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.
The plaintiffs named in the complaint are Chosen 300 Ministries Inc., the Rev. Brian Jenkins, The Welcome Church, the Rev. Violet Little, The King’s Jubilee, the Rev. Cranford Coulter, Philly Restart and Adam Bruckner.
The plaintiffs are churches and church leaders “devoutly committed to the plight of those in need,” the lawsuit states.
For more than a decade, the plaintiffs have operated programs that distribute free food in city parks to homeless individuals, according to the complaint.
“Food sharing programs for the homeless also express an important message about the desperate circumstances of the poor,” the suit states. “The programs have been hugely successful, furthering the religious mission of the plaintiffs and providing, at no cost to the City, a needed social service. The programs have functioned continuously without significant interference by government officials or adverse effect on the public interest.”
The lawsuit claims that the feeding ban, which, if violated, will result in “legal sanctions” against the violators, is a violation of the plaintiffs’ rights under the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom Protection Act.
The plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief.
The feeding ban was not done through City Council ordinance but rather as a directive by the mayor to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commissioner, according to past news reports.
The stated desire of the Nutter administration was to conduct homeless feedings indoors where it is supposedly safer.
As part of the measure, the mayor instructed the Commissioner of Public Property to establish a temporary food distribution center located on the City Hall apron in which outdoor feeders could sign up to obtain water and toilet use, according to a press release from the mayor’s office.
Local media has reported that the idea for the outdoor feeding ban came about following the Occupy Philadelphia movement’s encampment outside of City Hall.
The city’s health commissioner claimed that the Occupiers had “no authority” to ensure the food they handed out to folks was up to safety standards.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU claims that the plaintiffs’ long experience in providing food to the homeless has shown that many homeless will not enter indoor facilities where free food is offered.
“Some homeless report that food served at indoor locations is not particularly good or has made them sick; others are simply afraid to enter indoor settings,” the suit states. “Many have had negative experiences in shelters which they believe are unsafe, unwelcoming and/or unhealthy.”
The complaint goes on to state that the plaintiffs also believe that sharing food in a “centrally located public place – rather than a remote indoor location – serves the critical purpose of bringing widespread attention to the plight of the homeless.”
In their suit, the plaintiff’s claim that they have always complied with health and safety regulations and standards in their feedings in Fairmount Park, the city’s park system, and that they always clean the areas after food is served.
The lawsuit claims that the idea for the ban only came about in the weeks leading up to the opening of the new Barnes Foundation Museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in an upscale portion of downtown Philadelphia.
As for the designated area on the City Hall apron, the plaintiffs claim that the parks along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway would be a much safer and nicer area in which to conduct feedings.
The City Hall location, the suit claims, is surrounded by heavy traffic and concrete slabs, making it less appealing and less safe.
The plaintiffs believe the true reason for the ban has to do with removing the homeless from the vicinity of the new museum, an obvious tourist attraction.
“The amended regulations, the Mayor’s policy statements, and the timing of the City’s actions demonstrate a determination to remove from the vicinity of the Barnes Foundation those that some view as undesirable to the public image of the City of Philadelphia,” the lawsuit states.
“The City policy does not further a significant state interest and does not provide ample alternative channels for the plaintiffs to disseminate their message of the desperate circumstances of the poor and the need for compassion.”
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the feeding ban is unconstitutional, and a permanent injunction prohibiting the city from implementing and continuing the ban.
The federal case number is 2:12-cv-03159-WY.