The City of Columbia is cracking down on large groups of people gathering in city parks without a permit — an effort, in part, to control the feeding of homeless people.
Beginning Feb. 15, the city will begin enforcing its existing park permit ordinance. Any group of 25 or more people that holds an event or activity at a city park will need to file an application for a permit at least 15 days in advance. Fees for permits vary according to the park, the nature of the activity and the group hosting it.
The policy move has been in the works since last fall, when Columbia City Council adopted a set of measures to deal with homelessness. Among them: trying to coordinate the many groups who feed the homeless across the city, moving most meals to the city’s Calhoun Street emergency shelter and thereby reducing homeless people’s daily migrations around the city.
Among the groups that feed the homeless in city parks, the most well known is probably Food Not Bombs. The Columbia chapter has been meeting every Sunday at Finlay Park for 12 years to share food.
Applying for a permit isn’t a problem, says Judith Turnipseed, who helps organize Food Not Bombs. The problem is the fees. While there are reduced fees for nonprofits, Food Not Bombs doesn’t actually fall in that category.
“We have no formal organization,” Turnipseed says. “We don’t have a 501(c)(3). We’re just a group of people who come to the park and bring food and share it with anyone who comes. That includes people who are homeless, [and] people who have a home but are hungry. It’s a people’s picnic.”
According to her reading of the fee ordinance, Food Not Bombs would have to pay at least $120 per week, Turnipseed says. The group has been negotiating with city staff to try to keep the fees down, she says — and the group’s track record of cleaning up after itself should help. But the ordinance isn’t right, she says.
“We’re still talking to them and we’re still talking to each other. We haven’t come to a decision about what we’re going to do yet. … People say ‘Just move,’ but that’s kind of folding your tent and running,” she says.
Legal action is a possibility, says Tom Turnipseed, Judith’s husband.
“We’re the kind of folks who want to get along and work things out and negotiate, [but] it might have to come to going to court,” Tom Turnipseed says.
Many of these tensions date to mid-2013, when Columbia City Councilman Cameron Runyan rolled out a plan to address homelessness that included, among other ideas, an out-of-town homeless rehabilitation center called The Retreat and strict enforcement of city loitering laws and other ordinances. The Turnipseeds and other citizens protested the plans, writing letters, marching down Main Street and wearing patches with an “H” on them. The city never adopted all Runyan’s proposals, but Council did agree on a series of steps to address homelessness.
The city’s crackdown on park activities was delayed for several months while Christ Central Ministries, which the city has contracted to run its emergency shelter, got a feeding program up and running at the shelter on Calhoun Street.
Rev. Jimmy Jones, who runs Christ Central Ministries, says 71 churches and businesses have chipped in to help feed the homeless so far since the shelter opened for the season in September.
But not everyone’s been able to participate.
Judith Turnipseed says she called Jones last fall to ask what night of the week Food Not Bombs could feed people at the shelter, as they’d done in years past in addition to their Sunday park feedings.
“He said ‘We don’t need you and we don’t want you,’” Turnipseed says.
Jones confirms that account to Free Times. He told the Turnipseeds to go volunteer at Transitions or some other homeless service provider.
“The whole reason is if you’re going to stir up the homeless, don’t come down here,” Jones says.
Meanwhile, city staffers have been posting signs in parks to alert people to the coming policy change.
While the homeless issue was the catalyst for the city beginning to enforce the ordinance, there is actually a broader issue that needs addressing, says Jeff Caton, director of parks and recreation for the city.
“We do have groups that come to our facilities without notice, bring large groups,” Caton says. When that happens, he says, sometimes there aren’t enough trash cans for the group, or the bathrooms aren’t ready, and it can hurt everyone’s park experience.
The park ordinance allows the city to deny permits to groups for a variety of reasons, including if the activity “will unreasonably interfere with or detract from the enjoyment of the areas of the park or recreational facility for other members of the public.”
But Caton says he hopes he won’t have to deny anyone a permit.
“We’re hopeful that everyone complies and everyone does their part to take care of the property,” he says. “We hope everything runs smoothly.”
Still, this is new territory for his staff, he admits: They’re used to providing services, not enforcing city laws.
“That’s kind of a new thing for us, because we don’t tend to be in the enforcement arena,” he says.
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