For a year now, Karin Elliott has been feeding the homeless twice a week from the back of her truck in the parking lots of two city parks.
After discovering a friend was homeless, Elliott decided she wanted to help. She noticed that many Tucson homeless people congregate in city parks, so she decided to go to a park one day with a comfort-food dinner and ask if anyone was hungry. Folks have been lining up ever since. (See "Meals in the Park," July 22, 2010.)
However, in December, Elliott received a registered letter, dated Dec. 6, from the Pima County Health Department, telling her she was violating the state code that prevents someone from preparing food in their home and serving it to the public.
"I only do this twice a week to make a difference. I'm not a business. I don't make any money off of this; it's a kindness from the heart," Elliott says.
When the Tucson Weekly first talked to Elliott last year, she was serving meals at Santa Rita Park and Santa Rosa Park, both off 22nd Street near downtown. She continues to serve meals at Santa Rita Park, but she dropped Santa Rosa due to a lack of people and switched to Estevan Park, near Main Street and Speedway Boulevard. Elliott says it's not unusual to feed close to 50 people at Estevan.
"Yesterday, I fed 71 people. Last week, I served 152 people, and so far, I've served food to 3,336 people," Elliott says. "I don't want to stop."
Elliott has also heard from the city of Tucson: Officials say she needs additional permitting to serve food in city parks.
"I'm not even actually in the park; I'm in the parking lot. But, look, I'm not stopping. I'm still going. I guess they'll have to throw me in jail," Elliott says.
According to the letter from the county Health Department's Sharon Browning, the county received an anonymous complaint after the person read a story about Elliott in The New Southwest.
In order for Elliott to comply with code, Browning wrote, Elliott would need to work out of a certified mobile food trailer or truck.
Elliott says she can't afford to do that.
The notice from the city first came in the form of a phone call from Diane Salyers, with Tucson Parks and Recreation. Elliott says Salyers told her that she would need to get a permit; Elliott insisted Salyers send her a notice in writing.
In an e-mail to Elliott, Salyers wrote that Elliott needs a park-rental permit every time she serves food in both parks. She was told the current fees for Santa Rita Park and Estevan Park are $15 for three hours each.
"Your rental payment and a request letter with details about your event (i.e., number of people expected; type of food or other goods distributed; any setup or equipment) are then due within one week (of the reservation)," Salyers wrote. "A Pima County Health Permit is required in order to distribute food to the homeless, and a copy of the Health Permit must be received in our office before your parks rental permit is provided."
Karen Martin, a Pima County Health Department division manager, confirmed that Elliott was sent the letter by the county, because "in order to serve any food to the public, you have to have a permit to do so."
The food code is specific, Martin says—"for fee or free." She says the county still needs to protect the consumer. "The liability still falls to the person feeding and the regulating agency."
The complaint to the county was made anonymously, so there is no public record as to who complained.
"We would not have become involved, and there isn't much we can do right now. The ball is in her court. We won't pursue her," Martin says.
However, if the county receives another complaint, the county must begin an investigation, and Elliott will receive a notice of violation that could prevent Elliott from serving food to the homeless until she gets the proper permits.
"Bless her heart, I know she is trying to do good," Martin says, "and we want to help her, but she has to comply with the law. Right now, we are working with the (Tucson Gospel Rescue Mission) to get a permit for mobile food kitchens. We've recommended to her to fundraise and get outfitted with a mobile food permit."
Elliott says she's going to start writing to local lawmakers—and even President Barack Obama.
"I want to get a law established, a human kindness law, where the city and county can't touch people like us, or even bake sales or kids who sell lemonade. ... I'll go to Washington if I have to," she says.
"My personal feeling is that maybe the city and county see so many homeless people in the parks, and now that the snowbirds are here, I think they are embarrassed. So, what is the bottom line? That they'd rather starve them out and rather they eat from Dumpsters?"
Another group feeding Tucson's homeless also recently received a notice from the Pima County Health Department: The Mathew 25 Soup Patrol, from the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church on North Greasewood Road.
According to Father Bill Remmel, the church and its volunteers are currently working with the county to get the proper permits. He says it helps that the church remodeled its kitchen a year ago, and it could be licensed for commercial use if needed.
Remmel says he's not sure of the costs involved in getting the permits, which will include a permit for the van that volunteers use to serve soup and hot chocolate every night at different locations, from the Main Library downtown to Sixth Avenue.
Like Elliott, the county heard about the Soup Patrol through an anonymous complaint, but Remmel says the county has been "very nice to work with. Just because they are officials doesn't mean they are bad people. My feeling is we wouldn't want to do anything to put anyone's health in jeopardy."
The point, he says, is to continue serving people who are hungry.
"(On Jan. 30), we served 150 people. I think it's not just homeless people anymore, but people who are in need because of the economy. It's so easy to judge people, but we need to be careful. Any of us can be in the same place, so fast."