Permission to Eat

If you are willing to tackle a few hurdles, it’s not hard to get a city permit to feed the homeless, problem is you’re only allowed to distribute unhealthy food

I spent last Thursday morning calling the Pima County Health Department to discuss what options there are for a person to prepare food and hand it out to Tucson's homeless residents.

If you want to serve homemade food at any city park, you need a Pima County permit for an event. The cheapest costs $60. If you move your so-called "event" to another park, get ready to pay an extra $60. You could also get a food truck with a price tag in the six digits, and pay for an annual permit of up to $144 to operate in all of Pima County. Nonprofits "may" qualify for a discount on these fees.

I asked the health inspector I spoke with on the phone if she knew where I could get a free permit—the one stipulated in the one-month old city ordinance that targets Tucson's homeless community. "I don't know how exactly they are doing that," she answered.

Homeless advocates Michele Ream and Roy Trout also called the county health department, wondering about the free permit to feed the homeless.

Ream says at one point a woman actually told her, "I didn't think you were allowed to feed the homeless anymore." She still hasn't been able to get a permit.

Since the health department was clueless about these mysterious free permits, I called the City of Tucson, and was finally told that the permits are issued by the Department of Parks and Recreation. The ordinance doesn't clearly state you should contact Parks and Rec for the permit, by the way. Once I was transferred to the department, it wasn't so bad.

The issue is not whether it's difficult to get a city permit to distribute food and beverages to homeless people at parks. It is a fairly easy process, after one or two phone calls, and a drive to Parks and Rec to fill out a small piece of paper. You will leave with a permit—it took me roughly 20 minutes to get through the process, which involves writing down your name, address, phone number, foods you want to distribute, what dates and which park.

What's concerning is that this permit only green-lights pre-packaged food from a grocery store, and nothing that is made in your home kitchen. This makes the selection small and pretty unhealthy—cookies, crackers, or chips. Sure, you could buy canned vegetables and soup, or bags of beans and rice, but how is an individual who doesn't have a home going to boil the beans and rice, or open the canned veggies without a can opener? Dairy items and bags of bread are also a "hell-no."

I asked if I could purchase food from a grocery store deli, like salads and sandwiches made in a licensed kitchen and put in containers. "If it is a commercial kitchen type thing, we need their health permit," a woman at the Parks and Rec front desk said.

I told them I wanted a permit to distribute food at Santa Rita Park. They had to verify the three or four other permits Parks and Rec has issued since the beginning of the year, to make sure I wasn't there at the same time another person is also handing out snacks. "We are trying to make sure to have control as to how many people are in the park at the same time."

The Central City Assembly of God Church no longer serves the three hot meals a day it used to. There's Casa Maria Soup Kitchen in South Tucson, and the group Veterans on Patrol, which has prepared food donated to its "Bravo Base"—a camp for mostly homeless veterans. All-in-all, options for nutritious meals are scarce.

Trout—a Veterans on Patrol volunteer, who also runs a Facebook advocacy group called Homeless Advocate Connection—thinks of homeless folks who congregate in another area of the city and cannot access Casa Maria and other places because of a disability, or the inability to afford a bus pass. "There are hundreds upon hundreds of homeless people who can't travel 10 miles every day to get food," Trout says. Which is why church groups, and other entities, that were readily available with food at places like Estevan or Veinte de Agosto parks are so badly needed, he adds.

Trout says he's been in touch with a Pima County health inspector who is looking for loopholes in county and city laws to help churches that have had to temporarily hold off serving food at parks over health permit issues, but he wouldn't give the health inspector's contact information, because the health inspector asked for privacy while working on this matter.

With ordinances that continue to affect vulnerable populations, the city "is focusing on the wrong efforts," Trout says. They are labeling homelessness as the problem, rather than the result of several problems like poverty and mental illness.

Bottom line, the ordinance that passed Dec. 8, 2015—which also says homeless men and women are not allowed to have items bigger than 4-cubic feet on the sidewalk, and that sidewalks are off limits between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.—needs to be deemed unconstitutional because it criminalizes homelessness, Trout says.

"I believe one man can start to make a difference but it has to be a community effort, that is when human compassion comes in ... is getting the community behind the efforts," he says. "Say, 'Look, we have had enough of the city taking our rights to make these laws ... oppressing the poor.' The city is not represented by only seven people, [the ordinance] should have gone through everybody in the city ... should have gone through voters to pass."

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