Bucking Skid Row
Debra DiPaoloHALFWAY THROUGH HER FIRST TERM on the L.A. City Council, Jan Perry is grabbing headlines with her aggressive stance on downtown's homeless. Taking a cue from Santa Monica, which last fall banned outdoor food giveaways to the homeless (that ban is on hold pending a lawsuit by the National Lawyers Guild), Perry recently introduced a motion that would end free meal handouts on the streets of Skid Row. Perry suggests that giveaways could be moved to the newly opened James Woods Center, a 300-seat community center with a full kitchen available to private groups for a nominal fee.
But those opposing the motion, such as the L.A. Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, say while such a center is a welcome addition to the continuum of care for the homeless, it cannot replicate the value of the street food giveaways. Perry's motion is under review by the City Attorney's Office and is expected to return to the council in the coming weeks.
The L.A. Weekly's SARA CATANIA spoke by phone with Perry.
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L.A. WEEKLY: What's wrong with feeding street people in the streets?
JAN PERRY: The problem is this: The people who are well-intentioned, kind, loving people, coming down and feeding people on the street do not provide any semblance of adherence to basic health codes. In many cases the food is served from the back of trucks or cars. They are serving people food on dirty, bacteria-ridden sidewalks. There is no place for people to wash their hands, no eating utensils. The trash very often ends up on the streets and the sidewalks. Further, the crowds of people block the sidewalks. It makes people fight with each other to get in line. Sometimes the food is thrown from vehicles into the streets so people can grab it. There is no one keeping order for these ad hoc feedings. It's a public-health issue.
Did you consider a more proactive approach? Community training in food hygiene, for instance?
Absolutely. The motion and hopefully the ultimate ordinance will show we respect Skid Row as a community and that we respect the dignity and the health and the overall quality of this community in the same way that we would respect other communities in the city of Los Angeles. Because, quite frankly, this type of conduct is not tolerated in other parts of the city. I have already been making suggestions to groups and individuals who want to continue feeding to do the following: Contact the missions, some of the larger organizations, and volunteer your time. Or go to the very nice, very new James Woods Center and rent out the space and sponsor a feeding there. It has running water and toilets and tables and chairs and a full kitchen.
For dozens of religious groups, feeding the hungry on Skid Row is a time-honored tradition, a duty mandated by God. Cook up some food, load up the van, go to the Row. What happens to them?
They can apply for a special-event permit. Close the street. Make an agreement with the city to observe basic county health requirements in the way that they serve, and to agree to queue people up in a safe and dignified manner and to clean up as well.
There have been church groups feeding in the Skid Row area for quite a while who do this very thing. They get the permits and do the food giveaways as a special event. They play by the rules. They are willing to do that because they feel so committed to doing it that they do it properly.
You modeled your motion, at least in part, on one recently passed in Santa Monica that made outdoor food giveaways a crime punishable with fines and jail time. Church ladies in jail. Sounds like a PR nightmare.
People who are concerned about this have decided that that is our endplay. That's not my endplay. I'm the maker of the motion. So I'll be driving the effort. My objective is not to arrest people, in spite of what some people may say.
But will there be the possibility of a jail-time penalty for violation of this ordinance?
I think it's unlikely. We've done other things in the city, such as not permit people to smoke in parks anymore. A violation of that doesn't result in jail time. The objective, again, is to help people modify their behavior and to treat a community with respect.
If this passes, do you anticipate legal challenges?
I expect that the ACLU will sue us, no matter what. That's what they do. My goal is to create a policy that works. I'm hoping if I keep saying this, eventually somebody will listen. Someone will hear what I say. And it's not going to be the people who are suing us. It will be people who are willing to look at things in a different light.