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Loaves and fishes 

A proposed ordinance would limit the ability of charities to feed the homeless in LR city parks. Opponents say it's about keeping the poor out of sight, out of mind.

click to enlarge COME TOGETHER: A protest picnic on the steps of City Hall before the City Board discussed the feeding restrictions.
  • COME TOGETHER: A protest picnic on the steps of City Hall before the City Board discussed the feeding restrictions.

From a purely civic standpoint — from a keeping-your-constituency-from-hating-your-guts standpoint — the issue of homelessness is so thorny for a politician it almost makes you pity them. Almost. There is no right answer to be had, no one-size-fits-all solution big enough to stretch over the issue, bristling as it is with handy petards ready to hoist both those deemed insufficiently business-oriented and those seen as insufficiently compassionate. No matter what decision a city official makes with regard to homelessness, somebody, somewhere, is going to think that person either a bleeding-heart dope or a heartless bastard for making it.

Still, there are insufficient answers, and then there are the willfully tone-deaf ones. That seems to be the case with Little Rock's recent attempt to regulate mass feedings of the homeless in city parks, via a surprise ordinance that seemed so punitive and downright mean that it gave even some reliable business-first folks around town pause for thought. Dropped on city directors at the tail end of a City Board agenda meeting May 9, the ordinance as originally written would have prohibited feeding meals to more than 25 people in a city park without securing a "Large Group Feeding Permit" from the city at least 30 days before the event, with groups not allowed to serve meals in the same park more than twice a year. Though certain restrictions in the ordinance have been softened after public outcry, the original draft required each group to put down a $500 refundable security deposit "to cover the cost of repairing any damage to the hardscape, furnishings and landscape" in the park where the feeding occurred, with the deposit potentially forfeited if the group failed to pick up trash following their event. If the group wanted police protection for the event, the draft ordinance stated, it had to hire off-duty police officers at its own cost. In addition, the ordinance gave the city manager's office the ability to summarily cancel a feeding event in a city park at any time, postponing it for up to 15 days if City Hall determined the event should not proceed because of "weather, public health conditions, public safety conditions, or because of an intervening event that was not foreseen at the time the large group feeding application was filed."

Attempts to reach City Manager Bruce Moore, who brought up the ordinance, were unsuccessful before press time.

Groups serving the homeless fed large groups under the Broadway Bridge on a monthly basis for over a decade until the bridge was closed for construction in September 2016. It appears the ordinance was tailored to preserve the aesthetics of Riverfront Park and has outraged those who work with the homeless. In the process, it has managed to shove one of Little Rock's most enduring elephants in the room back into the rotunda of City Hall.

At a May 16 City Board meeting — one packed with homeless people and their supporters, who streamed in directly from a protest picnic hosted by homeless advocacy groups at the front of City Hall — Vice Mayor Kathy Webb and City Director Dean Kumpuris moved to table the ordinance (by then somewhat defanged, with the required security deposit dropped from $500 to $100 and other concessions) for 45 days and empanel a commission of city employees, homeless advocates and business leaders to study the issue and look for solutions. Members of the committee include representatives from River Market district businesses, the Arkansas Homeless Coalition, the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, area faith leaders, the Little Rock Police Department, the Clinton Presidential Center, two representatives who are homeless and others. The move to table and study passed by a vote of 9-1, with Director Ken Richardson voting against.

While the talking cure hasn't managed to budge the issue of homelessness in Little Rock much in the past, as some on the City Board pointed out, at least people are discussing it again. Given that homelessness is so easy for city leaders and workaday folks to ignore, maybe that's progress.

Crazy at best

One of the oddest things about the draft feeding ordinance was that nobody, even city directors, who will vote to kill or pass an amended version in mid-July once the committee's recommendations are made, seems to have known that it was coming.

"I don't know of any director that knew that was coming down," Capi Peck, Ward 4 city director, said. "Bruce Moore passed that ordinance out to us at the very end of the agenda meeting. We normally get a packet of information with what's going to be in the agenda meeting. That was not included. It was passed out literally five minutes before we recessed. We were all taken aback. I did later find out that this was something that the city attorney had been working on and researching for a couple of years."

Peck said her initial reaction to the ordinance was that it was "awful," and not something she or any board member could get behind. While Peck said she believes the city does more for the homeless than it gets credit for — she points to the Jericho Way homeless day resource center at 33rd Street and Springer Boulevard, noting that Jericho served over 10,000 meals to the homeless and provided over 10,000 shuttle rides to the facility last year — she believes the attempt to float an ordinance restricting compassionate feeding of the poor gave the city an unneeded black eye.

While Peck said she was initially in favor of voting down the ordinance as it was originally presented, she said the establishment of a committee to study the issue was a step in the right direction.

"I was appalled, and I think most of us [on the City Board] were absolutely appalled," she said. "With that being said, we do have a lot of work to do in that respect. Maybe this wasn't a bad thing that it came out this way. It brings it out into the public arena. Let's not react, let's do something positive about it."

Ward 2 Director Richardson, the lone board member to vote against tabling the ordinance and forming a committee to discuss it, said he is still questioning why city leaders thought the ordinance was necessary. "Nobody has presented to me a rationale for us doing this," he said. "The notion of us trying to penalize or criminalize people trying to help the least of us doesn't make any sense at all. I don't think it's a good or fair representation of the city I represent and the city I grew up in. It's just not the image that we want to have."

Like Peck, Richardson said the ordinance seemed to have "dropped out of the blue" at the end of the May 9 agenda meeting. Also like Peck, Richardson was taken aback by the seeming mean-spiritedness of the proposed ordinance. He believes the city has bigger fish to fry than trying to curtail compassionate feedings. "I thought the ordinance and the idea — let's say this so I don't hurt anybody's feelings — I thought both of those didn't make sense," he said. "I won't say it was idiotic, but it was crazy to me in terms of the issues that are pressing before us right now. ... It just came out of the blue. It's crazy, at best, if I had to have a word to describe it. That's at best."

Webb, who represents Ward 3, said she was surprised when she saw the language of the ordinance, which she has heard came in response to "numerous complaints" about the downtown homeless, including reports of panhandling. She said she wished the city had handled the issue differently, including giving the board advance notice that an anti-feeding ordinance was being considered.

"I wish somebody would have said, 'Look, we're getting all these complaints. This is something we need to talk about.' " Webb said. "We could have gotten some folks together to talk about it so we could have done what we're doing now, rather than have this ordinance, which — I don't think people are really mean — but I think the ordinance sounds very mean-spirited, even though other cities have done this. I don't like surprises, and to a lot of people this was a surprise."

While Webb said she understands the call to have simply voted the original ordinance down, she believes forming the committee to study the problem, look at solutions found by other cities, and make suggestions is a better approach to an issue that isn't going away.

"We don't talk much anymore," she said. "We've got people who get their news from one source, and people who get their news from another, and whatever either one of them says is true. We don't discuss. ... I think we have to talk about hard issues and give folks a chance to say, 'I know this is what you think, but this is the reality.' "

Webb said that while the time for the committee to make recommendations is tight — it will present its report at the agenda meeting July 11, with a vote on the possibly amended ordinance on July 18 — she believes its members can move the ball on the issue. She said her ultimate goal is reaching voluntary agreements between advocates, business owners and the city so the board doesn't have to put in place an ordinance to regulate feedings. She would like to see the committee stay on for the foreseeable future, to try to find long-term solutions.

"One of the things that's exciting about [the committee] is that we have people at the table with differences of opinion," she said. "It gives us an opportunity. ... We've got a starting point here. ... In my mind, if we can work together and have more collaboration on this, we can talk about, 'OK, we can work together on tiny houses, we can work together on mental health services, we can work together on more effective job training.' When we talk about homelessness, there's not one solution for everything. But when we can provide these additional services that can get at the core of what's an underlying issue for many people, we can drastically reduce the number of people who are homeless, and help people."

Food is life

Though he was asked by the Arkansas Homeless Coalition to serve as one of their representatives on the committee to study the ordinance and the issue, Aaron Reddin, founder of the mobile homeless outreach charity The Van, declined. He's got better things to do with his time than talk, he said, including — until the crankcase seal on his tractor blew a few days back — bush-hogging an overgrown, 5-acre plot he recently secured behind The Van's headquarters on Faulkner Lake Road in North Little Rock. When it's cleared and the stumps pulled, Reddin plans to plow the acreage into turn rows and plant the whole thing in vegetables — beans, potatoes, corn and tomatoes — which he said he will then give away to whomever the hell he pleases, preferably in a Little Rock city park.

Lean and bearded, a former Marine who carries a megaphone around in his cluttered and mud-splattered 4-wheel-drive truck, Reddin has been helping the homeless all over the state for 12 years now, working 80-hour weeks at times to fulfill a near-monastic calling to bring help, food, clothing and services directly to those who need it most. Like many local homeless advocates, Reddin was incensed by the anti-feeding ordinance, and incensed again when the City Board voted to table and study the issue instead of voting to kill it altogether. Reddin said he has yet to hear a rationale that justifies hindering the feeding of hungry people in city parks.

"These city parks are maintained by city sales tax dollars," he said. "Every homeless person in this town spends money in this town. They pay tax. They don't have the luxury of going on Amazon and ordering shit. Everything they buy, they pay taxes on. So they have just as much right to be there as anyone else. Food is life. To tell folks they can't share food one with another, it's just absurd."

click to enlarge AARON REDDIN: Says feedings will go on regardless of what the city does.
  • AARON REDDIN: Says feedings will go on regardless of what the city does.

Reddin said he sees the homeless feeding ordinance as the latest move in a longstanding effort by the city to push the homeless out of sight, out of mind — and away from the downtown areas where tourists and visitors congregate. He sees the location of Jericho Way — which is miles from the downtown core, closes at 4:30 p.m., and isn't open on weekends — as indicative of that effort, along with a series of recent evictions of homeless camps, which Reddin said have stepped up drastically since the first of the year.

Several city leaders have disagreed that the placement of Jericho Way was part of a calculated effort to draw the homeless out of downtown. But, Reddin said, "You take Jericho Way and you put it three miles from downtown? And then your argument against feeding in the parks is 'well, we've got Jericho Way'? They don't serve supper. That's not a bash on Jericho Way. They're doing a great job, and I'm glad that it's there. But we've got folks all over. Southwest, West Little Rock. You don't want them all in one place, why have one resource center? Do multiple small ones around town."

Reddin is skeptical that the committee studying the issue can find real solutions in only 45 days. He said if the ordinance is approved in any form, it will undoubtedly curtail the advocacy and outreach work by his group and others. "We try and make sure we have food in the van when we're out," he said. "We may have two or three people walk up when we pull up, or we may have 15 or 20. ... Say I pull into MacArthur Park to help one person who has called in distress, and the next thing I know, 26 people show up. You're going to write me a ticket for giving out some food?"

click to enlarge FOOD FOR THE HUNGRY: Volunteer Margaret Faulkner serves breakfast at the Salvation Army.
  • FOOD FOR THE HUNGRY: Volunteer Margaret Faulkner serves breakfast at the Salvation Army.

The ACLU of Arkansas has come out in opposition to the feeding ordinance, saying it would lead to litigation, and Reddin said he'll be meeting shortly with a lawyer who has offered to help Reddin's group fight the ordinance in court for free if need be. Whatever the case, he plans on pushing back against the idea that he can't distribute food to friends who happen to be homeless.

"There's enough of us that we're going to keep sharing food," Reddin said. "They can write all the tickets they want, they can pass all the ordinances they want. It's unconstitutional and blatantly discriminatory. If that's the Little Rock they want to have, then they can have that at City Hall. The rest of us are going to fight for the people that really make this city what it is, which is a great city that cares about people."

Clark Gray, who said he has been homeless on the streets of Little Rock for over three years, agrees that many in Little Rock care about the homeless. Standing in front of City Hall, eating a dripping ice cream cone at the protest picnic the night the City Board voted to table the homeless feeding ordinance, Gray said there are numerous groups, including Reddin's The Van, that work hard to better the lives of homeless people. But, he said, there are other people who seem to see right through him.

"There's a lot of people who will shrug their shoulders at us, stick their noses up at us," he said. "All we're trying to do is survive. There's a lot of people out here with health problems, like me. I'll probably end up dying in these streets because I don't have a way to get to the shelters or the churches that have food. There's people who would starve to death if it wasn't for the kindness of the folks at the mission down here and The Van."

Usually confined to a wheelchair by painful blood clots in his legs, Gray said he believes the city's recent efforts to evict people from homeless camps and the proposed ordinance to limit group feeding in the city parks are part of a conscious effort to push the homeless away from the River Market area where tourists congregate.

"The old saying is, 'out of sight, out of mind,' " Gray said. "They just don't want to have to look at us. I don't think that's right. I'm trying to figure out a way to get the public to realize we're human, too. Ya'll got your fancy houses and cars and all this. But we just want to survive. There's a lot of times that people aren't able to go way across town to these homeless shelters or to a place where we can eat."

The perception

The committee to study the homeless feeding ordinance held its first meeting at 7:30 a.m. May 23 at the Willie L. Hinton Neighborhood Resource Center on 12th Street. Fifteen coffee-stoked and fresh-scrubbed people met in a sparse, high-ceilinged room, untouched boxes of bagels and pastries growing stale on a nearby table. Though it was mostly a getting-to-know-you session with introductions all around, the conversation did eventually plunge into the red meat of the issue, with crosstalk often veering away from feeding to adjacent concerns about homelessness, from panhandling to mental illness to addiction. At one point, assistant City Manager James Jones, who serves as the facilitator of the committee, spoke up to say that the city Parks and Recreation Department has employees who sweep through Riverfront Park every morning before dawn, "collecting numerous syringes [and] needles," including from the playground area. At that, committee member Father Fred Ball, the pastor of San Damiano Ecumenical Catholic Church, asked the obvious. "That's important, safety," Ball said. "But I wonder how syringes found in the wee hours of the night tie to the feedings?"

Jim Garrett, an advocate for the homeless from St. James United Methodist Church who leads one of the groups that used to feed under the Broadway Bridge and serves dinner to the homeless and working poor twice a month at churches near Little Rock's Union Station and in Southwest Little Rock, asked much the same thing: Why was the connection being made between feeding people and drug abuse?

"Well," Jones said, "there's the perception. Real or not, the perception is there, whether it's true or not."

"We're there one hour, two times a month," Garrett said. "We're being considerate. We don't allow drug dealers or drug users. I'm insulted by that. We're not responsible for those parks the other 23 hours a day. If you're going to take that kind of stance, I don't see where we can possibly go with this."

While all present agreed they wanted to find a solution so that feeding the needy could continue, the meeting often spun away from the topic of filling hungry bellies and toward the negative effects of homelessness. One issue that came up was the urge to move the homeless away from tourist-heavy areas around Riverfront Park and the Broadway Bridge.

"A basic human need is survival and food," said Alan Sims, Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau vice president for sales and services. "So if you're feeding, it's an attractant. They're going to be attracted there. Why can't we balance? Why can't we attract them? It doesn't have to be in a park. It doesn't have to be where our children are. It doesn't have to be where there are safety issues and visitor issues. Why can't we attract them someplace else? I hope this group can find that. We want to feed and we want a great city. We can have both."

Parks and Recreation Director Truman Tolefree said the ordinance is about providing structure so that feeding in city parks doesn't become what he termed a "free-for-all."

"We have employees who are out there in cars at all times of the day," Tolefree said. "They work structured hours. If we don't know when groups are showing up, if we don't know when they're feeding or where they're feeding, or that kind of thing, we may have another activity planned. So we need to be able to have some kind of structure when people are coming to feed in the park."

After the meeting, Garrett, whose church has been holding large group feedings of the homeless in Little Rock for almost 10 years, said he felt a little more hopeful that the committee might be able to provide some solutions to the issue. He saw room for compromise, he said.

"In talking to [Vice Mayor] Webb," Garrett said, "I think there's some light at the end of the tunnel. I don't have the answer, but I feel that somewhere there's room to compromise. But it's got to be a pretty limited compromise. If we're talking about feeding, it's going to have to be in the downtown area somewhere. That's where the homeless people are. They're on foot. They can't come to us. They can traverse maybe a mile or so, but that's their area."

Father Ball and Garrett said they fail to see a direct correlation between problems like panhandling and drug abuse downtown and feedings in city parks. Both said they see it as their duty to continue to help find ways to get food to Little Rock's homeless.

"We weren't asked to do this. We were told to do this," Garrett said. "It's not one of the Ten Commandments, but maybe it's No. 11: to take care of the least and the widows and the poor."

click to enlarge OUT OF THE WAY: The city's day resource center, Jericho Way, is too far from the homeless, city critics say.
  • OUT OF THE WAY: The city's day resource center, Jericho Way, is too far from the homeless, city critics say.

Reached after the meeting, Jones said the committee is off to a productive start and will work toward consensus and a recommendation that everyone on the committee can support. "Working together, we can come to some kind of consensus and agree that there is a solution that everybody can be a part of and accept," he said. Asked whether he believes there is a direct correlation between feeding in Riverfront Park and needles found in the park, Jones repeated that the perception of a link is there.

"Are there facts to support that? I don't know. There's a perception that there is," he said. "There are a lot of homeless people who do sleep in the park. ... There are some people who think that when the feedings take place, they're going to stay where they're fed, and they'll stay there until the next day. That is a perception of citizens that call us all the time. They believe that. Is it a fact? I can't say that I have actual documentation to back that up."

The LRCVB's Sims said he is also optimistic that the committee can reach a solution. He said everybody on the committee agrees the feedings are a good thing, but a balance must be struck between what's good for the homeless and what's good for the city. Visitors to Little Rock, he said, serve as temporary taxpayers, spending money in local businesses. Because of that, he said, visitor perception of the city is a big concern.

"We want visitors to leave here and talk about how clean and great our city is and what wonderful generous and friendly people we have here," he said. "The old cliché 'perception is reality' very much applies. It goes back to what we started with: There's got to be a way that we can all do what we need to."

Sims said he's heard the arguments that every city has an issue with the homeless, but "that doesn't justify having an issue. We've got to be able to provide services for the homeless, be compassionate to the homeless, but also do that in consideration of the experience that our visitors have coming to the city. We need to balance all those."

Sims said he and the LRCVB are convinced that feeding the homeless needs to continue (his comments at the committee meeting about food possibly being used as an "attractant," he said, were misunderstood), and he added that the area near Riverfront Park is "very much part of a visitor zone for Little Rock" and probably shouldn't be used for mass feedings for that reason.

"Our convention center is right downtown, our primary hotels are right downtown, and they're all adjacent to the park," he said. "To be a guest in the hotel and look out the window and there's a large mass feeding going on right outside your hotel room, I'm questioning whether that's the image or the perception that we want. Would there not be a better place that might be more conducive to the feeding?"


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