Raleigh plans 'community discussion' after Moore Square food flap

ccampbell@newsobserver.comAugust 26, 2013 


  • State owned, city run

    Established in 1792, downtown Raleigh’s Moore Square has a unique arrangement: the one-block park is owned by the state but managed by the city.

    Although city park regulations – such as a rule prohibiting food distribution – apply, the state must approve changes to the park, including the planned $14 million renovation.

— City leaders and charity groups are still unsure why police cracked down this weekend on groups offering free food in Moore Square. They’re hoping for answers Wednesday, when City Council members will start a “community discussion” about how to feed homeless and indigent people downtown.

The food flap made national headlines Monday and highlighted decades-old tensions between downtown’s homeless population and the workers, residents and visitors driving the area’s revitalization. With easy access to the bus station and soup kitchens, Moore Square has long been a popular hangout for the poor. But as development continues to grow around the 221-year-old park, city officials are hearing more complaints about panhandling, fighting and loitering.

The council’s Law and Public Safety Committee – consisting of three council members – will meet at 3 p.m. Wednesday to tackle the issue, but members say one meeting won’t resolve it.

“We really have to analyze what the city did and why, and we have to have a community discussion about it,” said Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin, who chairs the committee.

Baldwin said she wants to know more about what prompted the recent crackdown, in which charities say they were suddenly threatened with arrest for handing out food. Raleigh has an ordinance on the books banning food distribution without an event permit in city parks, but the rule hadn’t been enforced until now.

Assistant City Manager Dan Howe is gathering information for Wednesday’s meeting, but he had little to say about how the police action started. “I don’t know,” Howe said Monday.

Police spokesman Jim Sughrue referred all questions about the incident to the city manager’s office. Parks and Recreation Director Diane Sauer and the downtown police commander, Capt. Rob Council, didn’t return calls Monday.

“No one’s taking responsibility,” said Carmen Zepp, co-founder of the group Human Beans Together. “Somebody certainly gave the order to the police.”

‘A bum rap’

Plenty of visitors to Moore Square have taken to the city’s troubleshooting website, SeeClickFix, to file complaints in recent months. Some complained of littering, public urination and foul language, and one anonymous commenter said the homeless “are taking over” on weekends.

Baldwin says she’ll look to balance the need to feed the less fortunate with the concerns of other visitors.

“We’ve gotten a lot of complaints, but we’re also trying to be compassionate and deal with it in a constructive way,” Baldwin said.

The charities behind the food distributions say they think weekend partiers are behind the trash problems. “That’s really a bum rap,” said Alice McGee of Church of the Woods. “We clean up after ourselves. We train the homeless to clean up themselves.”

Moving from Moore?

Still, some question whether Moore Square is the right place for free food. Baldwin says she’s interested in establishing a central location for charities to feed poor people. McGee is open to the idea and said her group just needs a spot that’s accessible to the needy; it’s trying to help elsewhere in the city, too.

Others, however, aren’t eager to move the efforts. Zepp of Human Beans Together says a designated area raises constitutional concerns.

“Government shouldn’t be able to tell you when and where you can share food,” she said.

Octavia Rainey, a longtime community activist in downtown Raleigh, agreed. “That is the right thing to do: leave it alone,” she said.

Rainey worries the recent crackdown on food distribution is part of a larger trend, pushing the poor out of downtown.

“The only reason why they’re doing that is because they want to upgrade Moore Square,” she said. “Downtown should not be this exclusive club for the haves, and that’s where we’re headed.”

Growth pressures

The crackdown on food distribution comes as the east side of Moore Square gears up for new development. Last week, the city took over the former Salvation Army property on Person Street. It bought the site last year for $2.1 million, noting potential for a mixed-use building or a hotel.

Groups such as Human Beans had used the Salvation Army’s parking lot for food distributions, but the city kicked them out last week, citing liability concerns. That pushed the events across the street, where they joined other groups in Moore Square.

In May, developers announced plans for The Lincoln, a 224-unit apartment complex one block east of the square. Neighborhood leaders worry rising real-estate prices could drive out low-income residents.

The park itself is set for a transformation, too. The city has a $14 million renovation plan that includes a concession kiosk, bathrooms and a splash fountain. The project is on hold because of funding constraints.

With all the change on the horizon, Baldwin says it’s important to determine how the less fortunate fit into the area’s future.

“That’s two to five years out,” she said. “The timing is right to have this discussion right now.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or @RaleighReporter

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