RALEIGH — Bob Stillerman, associate pastor of Millbrook Baptist Church, knows that giving sausage-and-egg biscuits to 100 hungry people in a downtown Raleigh park is a short-term solution for a long-term problem.
To Stillerman, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
“You have to balance the long-term solutions with, ‘What can I do today?’” said Stillerman, who came with nine Millbrook Baptist volunteers Saturday to give homemade breakfast biscuits those who waited in line at Moore Square.
“I can’t give you a job today. I can’t give you a house today. But I can give you a biscuit, and I can give you a hug and let you know that someone cares about you, and I can pray with you.”
Last week, it looked as if volunteers might not actually be able to give the hungry a biscuit – or any other food – at Moore Square, as they had been doing for six years. Police told leaders of Love Wins Ministries, which organizes the work of area churches to provide the weekend morning meals, that officers would enforce a city ordinance banning the distribution of food in Raleigh parks without a permit.
A permit costs $350 plus a $500 deposit. Love Wins didn’t have one.
The Rev. Hugh Hollowell, leader of Love Wins, wrote about the police intervention in a blog post that went viral, and dozens of speakers came to a City Council committee meeting to complain about the crackdown. The committee decided to hold off enforcing the rule, gather more information and let the full City Council take up the matter in November.
The free repasts are a way to fill in food gaps for those in need. Other charities and tax-supported organizations focus on weekday needs, but on Saturdays and Sundays, it can be more of a challenge for the poor and the homeless to find an affordable meal.
Stanley McDougald, 27, has been homeless since he got out of jail in early June for a misdemeanor offense. He had a job offer in Clayton, he said, but he has no place to stay in Johnston County, and can’t afford daily bus rides from Raleigh, where he has been sleeping at local shelters, at the home of an uncle and on park benches. He heard he could get breakfast at Moore Square on Saturdays, so he came and got in line.
“I appreciate y’all taking time out of your day to make biscuits and bring them out here,” he told a volunteer who handed him a foil-wrapped sandwich. “Y’all don’t have to do that, and I sure appreciate it.”
McDougald also picked up a granola bar, a juice box and a bar of soap, tucking the last into the backpack that holds his change of clothing. After breakfast, he said, he planned to fill out more job applications using a computer at the Wake County public library or at N.C. State University.
“Anything and everything,” he said, when asked what kind of work he’d take.
Is a biscuit the answer?
Some social workers believe that handouts are counter-productive and that those who are struggling, especially the chronically homeless, should be encouraged to work through social-service organizations designed to help them get on their feet. There are local programs that try to help with drug- and alcohol-abuse problems, mental-health counseling, education, job training and placement, affordable housing, budgeting and other issues that can contribute to homelessness and poverty.
Others have objected to the food giveaways for different reasons, saying they contribute to trash in Moore Square and give the park and the area around it a reputation as a magnet for the homeless. Owners of nearby businesses have complained in the past about panhandling.
With the economy improving, the area around Moore Square on the eastern edge of downtown has become of interest to developers. Apartments and office towers are in the works and more projects are expected, including on the former Salvation Army property, which the City of Raleigh bought this year for $2.1 million after the group move north of downtown.
City officials have said that allowing charities to use city property to distribute food could expose the city to liability if something goes awry.
The Rev. Hollie Woodruff, who lives two blocks from Moore Square and works part time for Love Wins as the group’s director of faith and community partnerships, said poverty and homelessness are intransigent problems that require time-consuming, one-on-one work with individuals in crisis. While that work is ongoing, she said, people are uncomfortable seeing the poor in a public park.
“You want to see people with money,” she said. “You want a place to be attractive to tourists. You don’t want people to be scared.”
Another group, Wake Area Mission Ministries, has been working to establish “care points” for the poor elsewhere in the county, and the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina has offered its parking lot on West Morgan Street to charities that want to use it to provide meals.
For now, those working with Love Wins will continue to serve weekend morning meals from Moore Square. The group used its website Saturday to thank Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and City Council for “bringing back our breakfast.”
Sara Acosta, spokeswoman for the group, said, “We recognize that this is not a permanent solution, but merely the first step toward making Raleigh a truly hospitable city.”