RALEIGH — Charities handing out free food in downtown’s Moore Square won’t get stopped by police this weekend after a City Council committee voted Wednesday to temporarily relax a ban on such distributions.
The move came after a three-hour public hearing that drew dozens of speakers angry about the recent crackdown on food distribution to the homeless and less fortunate. No one spoke in favor of banning the events, though some suggested that the one-block Moore Square park might not be the best place for charity work.
Raleigh leaders hope future meetings will yield alternate sites for distribution. Two downtown landowners came forward Wednesday to offer their property.
“There is nobody in this room who does not want to feed those in need,” said Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin, who chaired the hearing. “The point in contention is how we do that. There’s no reason that we can’t come up with a better solution.”
An umbrella group called Wake Area Mission Ministries has already been working to establish “care points” for the poor throughout Wake County. The group meets next week and wants to involve all food providers.
On Wednesday, a priest from the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina offered its parking lot on West Morgan Street downtown to charities. And shortly after Wednesday’s hearing began, Gov. Pat McCrory issued a news release that announced a permit for the group Church in the Woods to distribute food on state property. The permit is good for the next two weekends at Lane and Wilmington streets – one block from the governor’s mansion.
“We feel that it is important for North Carolina’s charities to be able do their good work in cooperation with state government,” McCrory said in the release.
Some groups, however, want to stay in Moore Square.
“It’s a central location, it’s easily accessible by bus stops,” said Todd Pratt of Human Beans Together, one of the groups that says it was kicked out last weekend.
But some business owners disagree.
“The legacy of Moore Square is it’s become a designated herding place for the indigent and homeless,” said Al Brothers, who owns a building near the square. “My big question is, ‘Why Moore Square?’ ”
Ordinances banning food distributions in Raleigh parks have been on the books for more than a decade, but they hadn’t been enforced until this month – prompting questions about the sudden crackdown.
Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown said Saturday’s police action in Moore Square happened because the city bought the former Salvation Army property across the street. The nonprofit has moved to a new facility on Capital Boulevard, and the city now owns the downtown property for future redevelopment.
Deck-Brown said city officials met Friday and determined that food handouts in the building’s parking lot needed to stop because of liability issues.
Four senior officers were asked to reach out to nonprofits Saturday and inform them of ordinances governing the park and surrounding sidewalks.
“Those four officers, by my decision, had to be experienced personnel,” she said. “We had the best intentions: It was never to imply or threaten anyone with arrest. We would have never, as a police department, try to undermine the efforts of so many.”
But several groups, including Love Wins Ministries, said the officers threatened arrests Saturday. “When a large man with a gun tells me I will not be permitted to do this, … I might think I’m breaking an ordinance,” said the Rev. Hugh Hollowell, who leads the group and wrote a viral blog post that sparked the outcry.
Carmen Zepp of Human Beans Together said her group was threatened with arrest before the Salvation Army property changed hands. “It’s not just this past weekend,” she said. “Until two weeks ago, the police would wave and smile to us as they passed by.”
Patrick O’Neill, from the Father Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, thinks growth pressures are responsible for the sudden crackdown: a developer’s plans for apartments a block east of the square. “I have a feeling that has a lot more to do with this gathering and why we were threatened with arrest than anything else,” he said.
Regardless of what took place Saturday, city staff recommended that the nonprofit groups be left alone in the future – unless a festival or other event has reserved the square. Still, Assistant City Manager Dan Howe said the current ordinances should remain on the books – requiring a $325 permit to use the park, plus a $500 deposit.
“We also recommend that enforcement not involve any arrest or attempt to move them out,” he said.
Litter in Moore Square
At Wednesday’s meeting, city staff presented a slideshow with numerous photos of trash in Moore Square, including what appeared to be a trash bag full of decaying doughnuts. Deck-Brown said littering is the most common complaint the city receives about the park. It was also a hot topic at a community meeting on the square’s future about a year ago.
The problems, according to parks officials, persist despite three garbage pickups per day and several volunteer litter patrols.
Deck-Brown also pointed to crime statistics showing that Moore Square has five times the crime of its twin across downtown, Nash Square.
“These statistics in no way imply that the less fortunate are causing these crimes,” she said. “Too often, they are the victims.”
Sylvia Wiggins, director of Helping Hand Mission, says downtown’s high concentration of bars causes many of the problems.
“You’re talking about noise and disturbances – come through downtown Raleigh at 10 o’clock on a Friday night,” she said.
Wednesday’s solution to the concerns is only temporary; the City Council will gather more information and take up the issue again in November. Baldwin said she plans to get Wake County leaders involved in the debate, too.
Councilman John Odom said he wants to resolve liability concerns if food distributions continue in Moore Square. Organizers of special events bring their own liability insurance; the charities don’t.
“The liability will be a big issue for me,” Odom said. “We’re self-insured, and that means every citizen in Raleigh is liable” for anything that happens in the parks.
Councilman Randy Stagner said he thinks the city’s efforts are headed in the right direction with Wednesday’s vote. “I think that’s a start, but it’s certainly not the finish point,” he said.
Campbell: 919-829-4802 or@RaleighReporter