After more than a decade of feeding the homeless in Columbia, South Carolina, one group’s tradition could be in danger of ending as the city begins enforcing rules to limit the gathering of large groups in public parks.
As of February 15, Columbia began requiring any group of 25 people or more to pay for and obtain a permit 15 days in advance if they wished to use the city’s parks for an event. This requirement was extended even to non-profit groups and charities, though their fees would be smaller.
The problem for one of the most well-known groups that feeds the homeless, however, is that it doesn’t even qualify as a charity. For about 12 years, Food Not Bombs has been gathering in a Columbia park to share meals with those less fortunate. That tradition is in jeopardy, according to organizer Judith Turnipseed, since the new policy would force the group to pay at least $120 per week in order to meet.
“We have no formal organization,” Turnipseed told the weekly South Carolina newspaper Free Times. “We don’t have a 501(c)(3). We’re just a group of people who come to the park and bring food and share it with anyone who comes. That includes people who are homeless, and people who have a home but are hungry. It’s a people’s picnic.”
What’s more, efforts by Food Not Bombs to join a new shelter organized by Christ Central Ministries have ended in failure as well, leaving the group to consider taking legal action against the city in order to maintain its ability to gather in the parks.
The whole situation is reminiscent of another that's taking place in Washington state, where a church group called Crazy Faith Ministries believes it’s being targeted for its efforts to feed the homeless population in Olympia. As RT reported last year, the mission gathers in empty lots to feed the hungry, but the city wants them to move due to complaints by business owners.
Back in Columbia, Jeff Caton of the Parks and Recreation Department said that while the city’s homeless problem did create momentum for the new policies, they are intended to target large groups in general, not those dedicated to serving the poor and the hungry.
“We do have groups that come to our facilities without notice, bring large groups,” Caton said to Free Times. “When that happens, he says, sometimes there aren’t enough trash cans for the group, or the bathrooms aren’t ready, and it can hurt everyone’s park experience.”
Caton doesn’t think he’ll have to deny many permits, but the ordinance does allow the department to turn away groups or activities that “will unreasonably interfere with or detract from the enjoyment” of the park or other facilities.
These events began unfolding in 2013, when Columbia sought new ways to keep the homeless population from moving about the city. One plan that’s been enacted involved establishing a new shelter away from popular areas and directing charities such as Christ Central Ministries to set up shop there. The law has been criticized by some, such as the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil liberties Union, for essentially exiling the homeless population.
“The underlying design is that they want the homeless not to be visible in downtown Columbia,” said Susan Dunn of the ACLU to Think Progress last year. “You can shuttle them somewhere or you can go to jail. That’s, in fact, an abuse of power.”