When I arrived at downtown Atlanta’s Hurt Park on a recent Saturday morning, it was quiet and calm. But a crowd started to gather and quickly grew to about 100 people, confirming the reason I’d come.
Hurt Park is one of several spots downtown that have become regular sites for “street feeding” of the homeless. For years, it’s been a common practice for church groups — many from the suburbs — and other well-meaning people to feed the homeless in downtown Atlanta.
Groups bring prepared food to parks and parking lots, particularly on weekends. Many feel the powerful calling of their Christian faith to do so.
That day, four different groups gathered to feed the homeless in a three-hour period. I saw the homeless and poor line up several times — for a prayer, for clothes, for toiletries, for sandwiches and even for a plate of spaghetti.
As Saint Matthew said in his gospel, describing blessings of those who serve the needs of others: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…”
Hurt Park also happens to be along the new Atlanta Streetcar line, one of several new efforts meant to attract tourists to downtown, including the just-opened National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the under-construction College Football Hall of Fame.
The intersection of new tourism and homeless people has some downtown interests talking about the issue of street feedings. I heard discussion at an editorial board meeting with members of Central Atlanta Progress recently, and that’s why I decided to check it out.
At Hurt Park, the scene goes from calm to chaos in a matter of minutes as groups pull up with a van, set up tables and the homeless rush to get in line. People handing out the food often wear t-shirts with the name of their church.
“They’re serious about their faith and what they do,” said Phillip Spillane, a member of the downtown Ambassador Force who monitors the feedings.
So we have well-meaning people, including some teen-agers, feeding about 100 homeless and poor on a Saturday morning. Shouldn’t that scene warm our hearts and make us want to do the same?
Maybe not, if we look more closely and think harder about it. That’s according to Charles Gardner, pastor at downtown’s First United Methodist Church.
Gardner heads a group called Partner for Hope, which includes clergy and service organizations working toward “lasting self-sufficiency” for the homeless.
“You’re feeding people. What’s wrong with that?” he asked. “It’s the way they’re going about it.”
Street feedings disrupt the use of the city’s parks and can leave a mess behind, he said.
Gardner believes enticing homeless people to line up and eat while sitting on a curb adds to the indignity of being homeless. And some have health problems that can be made worse by the wrong foods, or food that might not be properly prepared.
Homelessness is a complex problem with many causes. Gardner is interested in getting homeless people to use service agencies that help them over the long haul, and street feedings can short-circuit that.
He’s inviting a full-blown debate, and he knows the risks of speaking out against feeding the homeless — especially for a man of the cloth.
“I don’t want to become known as the pastor who doesn’t want homeless people to eat,” he said.
In fact, Partner for Hope maintains a list of locations around downtown where the homeless can get a meal, including at least seven spots that provide food daily. It’s clear that the most serious issue for Atlanta’s homeless isn’t hunger, said Gardner.
But the folks feeding the homeless on the streets aren’t buying it, and neither are the homeless themselves.
At Hurt Park, James Price, pastor of Cornerstone of Faith Christian Ministries, located on Auburn Avenue, doesn’t believe downtown’s homeless have sufficient access to food. If that’s the case, “then why are they here?” he asked.
Undeterred even after they were told by police they had to set up on the street rather than in Hurt Park, Rev. Price and his volunteers began with prayer and then doled out spaghetti on paper plates from the back of a pickup truck.
“This is a blight that we cannot ignore,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work for us to do. We’re going to keep on. We’ll be back.”
Several homeless people said they don’t believe that there are plenty of places to eat either, or they don’t know of them. And some just like having the food in a park, or getting away from shelters.
“Some of the places you can’t even get into,” said Cynthia Hood, who has been homeless for three years. “Everybody knows to come here.”
The downtown religious leaders aren’t alone in their concern about street feedings. Downtown businesses are concerned too.
Consider the perspective of Susana Chavez, executive vice president for Parking Company of America. Her business is running parking lots, among the favored spots for these feedings.
On a typical Saturday, she said she sees hundreds of homeless “waiting for the next van to pull up,” which doesn’t seem to solve the homeless problem.
It keeps tourists, and frankly, many of us in Metro Atlanta who’d rather look the other way, from using the parking lots. And it creates a mess. Chavez points out that the people providing the food don’t realize that they’re trespassing and that often homeless people will take extra food and hide it in bushes and other places where it rots.
“You have all these people who want to do good,” she said. “If we could just gather that energy and put it to better use.”
She, too, wants to guide folks to the many agencies set up to serve the homeless. These are places where people could donate money or volunteer time, she said.
Health codes and city ordinances could curb street feeding, as they require standards for food preparation and permits to feed large groups. But for now, those concerned about the feedings haven’t pushed for strict enforcement of laws.
Instead, the downtown ambassadors give out cards and information in an attempt to redirect the energy and goodwill of people who want to help.
“It’s an uphill battle,” said Gardner.
He’s right. A number of people, asked for their point of view on the AJC’s Facebook page, said feeding the homeless is a righteous act.
“It can’t possibly be a bad thing to do,” said one.
Robert Lupton, a long-time community activist based in Atlanta and author of “Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It,” disagrees.
“The folks that come and hand out sandwiches? I call that harmful charity,” he said. “It’s irresponsible.”
He urges people to do the harder thing and to commit to a true act of charity and faith: Understand what would really help a homeless person, and support agencies that do that work. Even find a way to get directly involved.
The problem of homelessness has many causes, and Lupton questions the commitment people are willing to make to solving it. It has to go beyond making ourselves feel better, he said.
“Who is this service activity for?” Lupton said. “To help the homeless? Or someone else?”
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Kevin Riley is editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution