Food Fight

Will The Salvation Army Launch An Independent Attack On Local Hunger?

By Dave Devine

WHAT HAPPENS when firmly held religious beliefs collide with currently popular public sentiments? In the case of feeding the homeless, downtown Tucson looks like it's about to find out.

For years the Salvation Army has provided an afternoon meal to whomever wanted one. Initially, they set up in the heat, dirt, wind and cold outside of City Hall. After numerous complaints, the feeding site was moved to an old warehouse on Toole Avenue.

But the indoor location didn't stop criticism of the program. Nearby residents and business owners complained of crime and litter caused by some of the 250 or so people eating daily at the Toole site. Plus, there have been questions about the propriety of feeding everyone, including panhandlers and others not counted among the "deserving poor" by today's standards.

Currents After years of hand-wringing and discussion, the Tucson City Council appointed a citizens' task force to try to settle the issue. They recommended creating six widely scattered locations to provide the daily meal. While the group originally faced a February deadline for finding those six sites, it will now be summer or later before that effort is completed--if it ever is.

The task force also suggested altering the feeding situation at the Toole building. The first change to occur was a shift in management. In November COPE Behavioral Services assumed the role after a competitive bidding process. They will be joined by Primavera Services, Our Town Family Center, La Frontera's RAPP team and Compass Health Care in offering a variety of social services to those eating at Toole.

Salvation Army officials had made it clear for months that they would not continue to participate in the meal program if they could not manage the facility. When COPE was awarded the city contract, the Salvation Army announced it would stop providing meals at Toole on January 4. While city staff members are now scrambling to find a replacement, the battle lines for feeding the homeless in downtown Tucson have been drawn.

Just because the Salvation Army is pulling out of the Toole building doesn't mean it's going to stop feeding people downtown. Captain William Dickinson, the Army's local coordinator, says, "We'll monitor the situation. If we see problems, we'll feed people somewhere else."

While Dickinson hopes the new Toole food service works out, he says they parted company with the citizens' task force and the new service providers over philosophical differences. Those include the move toward requiring people to do some things in exchange for food, including registering, using available social services, and possibly providing some volunteer labor.

Bob Lane, a neighborhood representative on the task force, thinks the Salvation Army would be "childish" and "vengeful" if it opens another feeding site. He stressed that the reason the task force was appointed in the first place was because of the way the Army ran the Toole operation.

Pat Benchik, executive director of COPE, says registration of those eating at Toole is almost a certainty. The final decision on that issue, along with several others, is being left up to a newly appointed 11-member citizens advisory board which will oversee the operation of the facility.

Registration, according to Benchik, will probably begin by the end of January. It will allow officials to track a person's involvement with the social services being offered. Eventually, he says, if a person doesn't utilize the services, he might be denied food. But that issue is still undecided.

Benchik hopes to change the Tool site "culture" by making physical improvements to the building and in the social approach taken with people who eat there. It's his hope that the Toole site will become a place that both feeds people and links them to social services. That, he says, will help to shift the community's focus on the homeless from a handout to a hand up. Under that scenario, he says, "all parties win."

BUT IT'S THOSE very shifts in service which fly in the face of the Salvation Army's mission. Its members believe in feeding hungry people, regardless whether they're among the "deserving poor." Army officials have insisted for years that the people eating at Toole won't participate in a registration program. If that's true, and it results in people not being fed, it seems likely the Army will be back in the downtown food provision business before too long.

They have a wide choice of places they could feed people. The first would be in one of several city parks in the downtown area. The decision about whether a particular park could be used for such a purpose would be up to the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

A second possible location for a new homeless feeding site would be any downtown church. According to Walter Tellez, the city's zoning administrator, as long as the primary use of a building is religious in nature, feeding people there can be done legally under the zoning code.

If the Salvation Army creates a new feeding site, the past complaints about problems caused by the Toole program will be mild compared to what the City Council would hear in that eventuality. The Council will be back in the position it's been in repeatedly over the past decade--trying to find a compromise which satisfies most people.

So far, they haven't been able to do that, and the hard feelings on both sides of the issue generated in the past year means the fight over feeding the homeless downtown will almost certainly continue to escalate. TW

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