Downtown organizations fight for the right to feed homeless
Due to a perceived rise in law enforcement by the Los Angeles Police Department and Department of Public Health, members from a variety of human rights and homeless empowerment organizations joined together to discuss ways to defend, as they put it, their “right to share food.”
Members from Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), Los Angeles Catholic Worker, World Agape Church, Food Not Bombs, South Central Farmers Association, Watercorps, Dream Center, Fun Zone Reading Club and various others met on Aug. 17 to unite to defend the distribution of free food in Downtown districts.
At its core, the concern is over government and police enforcement of California’s Health and Safety Code. Many in the group feel that they cannot effectively continue to serve food to the homeless due to relatively minor health code violations and permit regulations that they say have little to do with public safety and more to do with politics.
General Dogon is a skid row resident and member of LA CAN. Upstairs at the LA CAN headquarters on Main Street, Dogon moderated the meeting, organizing and writing ideas on a large dry erase board.
“We have one purpose and that is to serve the people,” said Dogon. “We’ve all been coming across opposition, and now we have to come together for our future.”
For five years, World Agape Church ran a soup line near the downtown intersection of Sixth Street and Towne Avenue. On June 2, the organization was given a notice of violation by the Department of Public Health and closed its food distribution for the foreseeable future.
“It rattled my cage something fierce,” said Michael “Waterman” Hubman, a member of Watercorps and LA CAN. “They didn’t just take the food, they took community, society, camaraderie.”
The organizations worked together closely in the past as network partners. Hubman was moved to action when the lead organizer, Yeonshiko Woo, decided against fighting back. He promptly reached out to LA CAN and the ACLU for assistance. Once LA CAN secured a meeting place, Hubman sounded the alarm.
“I went through my Rolodex and just started calling people up from A to Z,” he said.
On Aug. 10, representatives from interested groups met for the first time to discuss their experiences.
Matt Hendry of Los Angeles’ Dream Center has noticed a rise in enforcement when attempting to serve Crocker Street, between Fifth and Sixth. Organizers from Food Not Bombs arrived at the intersection of Third and Wall Streets, a regular distribution point, to find street curbs painted red, barring accessible parking. Jessie Lewis of LA Catholic Worker has also experienced aggressive tactics by the Health Department when, two days after a public demonstration against Mayor Villaragosa’s visit to Skid Row, the organization was visited by the Health Department for inspection.
The group contends that the enforcement is usually over small details, such as overhead coverings for food and blocking sidewalks, that do not practically violate public safety. They perceive the enforcement to be selective and inconsistent, especially in comparison to other outdoor gatherings.
“What about that downtown Arts Walk?” said Linda Valverde of LA CAN. “Talk about blocking the sidewalk. People are everywhere and they don’t get hassled!”
The group also points to hired private security, employed by businesses involved in the Business Improvement District (BID) program, as impediments to their cause. Security are differentiated by the color of their shirts: red for Central City East, purple for Downtown Center and Historic Downtown, yellow for the Fashion District, and blue for the Arts District. These patrols act as city monitors, scouting public areas for illegal activity and calling the LAPD when necessary.
The group is also looking to reach out to independent “do-gooders” from church organizations or other teams. Many serve food on a casual, unpredictable basis and do not have a working relationship with the organizations.
The accumulation of trash after the distribution of food is a foremost concern, as it has been used to discourage the organizations’ activity. Many independent distributors have been seen to not follow proper clean-up procedure, which has caused other organizations to take the blame.
“Even the homeless feel like there should be some ownership going on there,” said Ron Crockett of Skid Row’s Funzone Reading Club. “Those who give need to pick it up.”
The lack of public trash cans and dumpsters in the Skid Row area has caused many of the organizations to question the basis of littering violations, as there is no viable option for visitors of the area to properly dispose of unwanted items.
Their intent is rooted in building a trusting community system to care for homeless and low-income residents of downtown.
“We want to produce positive change in people’s lives,” said Dogon. “There are many that really want out but they need help. We’re here to show them that there is a better life and teach folks their rights.”
Actions in response to these concerns are currently being developed. Representatives from the group have decided to approach the office of Councilwoman Jan Perry. The group is also developing a community picnic in the Skid Row area.