LANCASTER — The City Council unanimously introduced a proposed ordinance with recommended modifications that would place restrictions on outdoor food distribution on public property and agreed to revisit it in six months for adoption, after hearing impassioned pleas from more than 40 speakers during an hours-long meeting Tuesday night in Council chambers.
A standing-room-only crowd filled the council chamber for discussion on the proposed ordinance. The Lancaster Criminal Justice and the Lancaster Homeless Impact commissions held previous meetings on the proposal and recommended it to the Council for approval.
At one point early in the discussion, audience members shouted at Mayor R. Rex Parris as he spoke.
“I want them out,” Parris said, when the shouts only intensified.
That prompted the Mayor and the rest of the City Council to get up and leave the dais for several minutes. A few people were escorted out of the chamber, which was filled to capacity. Some audience members continued to shout after the they left. Parris and the Council returned after about six or seven minutes.
“As I was saying, the fact of the matter is, that when we have these events of feeding people in certain places, what’s left behind is dangerous to the public health,” Parris said. “I am not going to have an epidemic in this City if I can fix it first.”
Parris added he is not sympathetic to the idea that the City is not doing everything possible to help the homeless. He pointed to Kensington Campus as an example.
Kensington Campus, on Avenue I and 32nd Street West, is a state-of-the-art 14-acre community designed to house, employ and rehabilitate local people experiencing homelessness.
The proposed ordinance encourages people who wished to serve meals or provide other assistance to people in need to volunteer their time and services at Kensington Campus.
“It’s a beginning,” Parris said. “It’s 400 and some people will be serviced. They’ll be serviced with dignity in an environment intended to help people thrive
Parris added, “Not one person is going to unfed that wouldn’t have been unfed anyway; it’s just where it’s going to happen.”
Many speakers said they need to go where the people are. They said the restriction on where they could serve food to the needy would leave those without transportation out.
“We have a mandate as Christians to take care of those less fortunate than us,” speaker David Cowan said. “In showing love, when we see a person that has a need, it’s our responsibility to take what they need to them.”
Speaker Shannon Snow said the City could have organizations apply for a free permit in advance of feeding people in need.
“I like your idea about the permitting process where we do it for free,” Parris said. “And I think we’ll probably develop that, and it would be free until they don’t clean up.”
Speaker Vidamarie Adams said they are volunteers who pay out of their own pockets to help people in need.
“When you’re asking people to go by health code, you’re asking them to incur additional fees that they may not be able to absorb,” Adams said.
Lancaster native Justin Biagas, of the Helping Hands Coalition, said he would like to work with the City to make a difference.
Speaker Cheryl Speakman urged the nonprofit organizations in the City to work together and be responsible for cleaning up after themselves.
“I’ve been an advocate for over 30 years,” Speakman said. “I’ve actually experienced half of what these homeless and drug addicts have gone through, so it takes one to know one to serve.”
Speaker Anthony James said he is homeless.
“I go to many different places eating due to my finance and different things,” he said. “There’s some places I can’t make it due to my transportation. I understand you want it in certain places, but some of these places we can’t go. We have blind homeless; we have homeless that’s in wheelchairs. We have homeless that has no money. I was just wondering if there’s something that you can work out with this.”
Speaker Fawn Kemble, a Lancaster resident, said she was concerned about the stripping away of the human element.
“I am a follower of Christ as many of us in this room are, and I follow His commands,” Kemble said. “We are to feed those who are hungry, and part of that for me is very personal. If I see someone who is hungry, I want to be able to give them food when they need it.”
Kemble added the more hoops you add to something there are fewer people who will jump through them.
”Please don’t strip away that human element,” Kemble said.
The proposed ordinance would limit outdoor food distribution on public property to public parks, but only in a portion of the park that can accommodate the water and sanitation requirements established in state food safety laws and regulations.
“Individuals and organizations conduct food distribution events on sidewalks and other public property,” Assistant City Attorney Jocelyn Corbett said during a presentation before the City Council before public comments. “While the intentions are admirable, these events often obstruct the free flow of pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and result in garbage and trash left on the public property after the distribution, creating hazards to public health.”
Corbett added people involved in food distribution to the needy are often not in compliance with statewide standards for food preparation and service to the public.
“The safe and sanitary preparation, storage, and service of food is particularly important to needy persons who might have compromised immune systems,’ Corbett said.
Groups or individuals also would have been required to apply for a facility rental and comply with operational requirements.
They also would have been required to have a valid permit from the Los Angeles County Health Department, and comply with all state and county food safety requirements. Any food distribution that does not follow the proposed new rules would be considered a public nuisance and subject to abatement.
Vice Mayor Marvin Crist said the proposed ordinance still has a lot of holes that need to be fixed.
“Make some changes in the ordinance now but don’t implement it for six months,and give the 501c3s the opportunity to police themselves,” Crist said.
Crist wanted to add some of the suggestions that came up during the discussion, such as free permits, volunteers for food safety training, Porta Potties, transportation, and trash issues.
The proposed fee structure would be modified so that it would be free until a group breaks the rules.
“There was enough people here tonight that really came with some good ideas. I don’t think that we don’t want to dismiss them,” Councilmember Ken Mann said. “I think we need to bring everybody together and make it work.”
Mann, who has 50 years’ experience in food service, said he would be willing to help people who want to distribute food to the needy.
Parris said he wants the Homeless Commission involved in rewriting the ordinance.
“I like the idea of, if we handle this energy appropriately, we’re going to do more good than the opposite of that,” Parris said.