Lancaster Is Considering Restrictions On Feeding The Homeless In Public Spaces

File: Volunteer Katrina Onyekwelu prepares dinner for those staying at the Grace Resource Center's Lancaster Community Homeless Shelter in May 2016. Grace Resources has taken a neutral stance on a controversial ordinance proposed in Lancaster that would restrict how food is distributed in public spaces. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

Battle lines are being drawn in the city of Lancaster over where and how homeless people can receive a meal. The High Desert city is considering an ordinance that would effectively ban feeding homeless people in most public spaces.

"Individuals and organizations conduct food distribution events on sidewalks and other public property," city officials wrote in the council agenda announcing Ordinance No. 1071. "While their 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 and a visual blight."

As currently drafted, the ordinance would prohibit food distribution from public sidewalks, streets and parking lots and allow individuals and groups to feed people in public parks, but only if they acquire both a park rental permit and a health permit from Los Angeles County — and pay the fees attached to both.

As written, the law would include any person, charitable organization or other group from preparing, dispensing or selling food in public spaces. So buying an extra breakfast sandwich at the drive-thru and giving it to a person in need on the corner could be cited as a misdemeanor offense. Violations could also lead to civil lawsuits, according to city officials.

The proposed law would not impact food distribution on private property, like churches or homeless services sites.

City officials, including Mayor R. Rex Parris, framed the ordinance as necessary to address public health concerns. One councilmember cited the 2016-17 outbreak of hepatitis A in San Diego County as an example.

"When people defecate on the street, when they defecate in doorways and especially when they do that in the parks and the children play in that, it is unacceptable," Parris said at the crowded city council meeting Tuesday evening.

The meeting quickly turned contentious, with Parris verbally sparring with members of the public who spoke out against the proposed ordinance.

"The way the homeless situation is being managed in Southern California is just a crisis waiting to happen," Mayor Parris told attendees during the meeting. Some in the crowd stirred in protest as the mayor raised his voice and continued:

"Let me tell you what a crisis is. A crisis is when children are dying as a result of disease."
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, seen here in a 2013 file photo, verbally sparred with members of the public who spoke out against the proposed ordinance on Tuesday night. (Reed Saxon/AP)

The outcry from the crowd was intense, and in response the mayor called a recess. When the meeting resumed, Parris reiterated his view that the ordinance was drafted to keep the public safe.

"I am not going to have an epidemic in this city if I could fix it first," he said, adding that if the ordinance were to become law, "not one person is going to go unfed that wouldn't have been unfed anyway."

Parris then opened the public comment period, saying that he hoped those speaking "will have a solution rather than just a complaint."

When Regina Thomas got to the mic, she opened by saying she didn't have a solution, but she did have a strong opinion about the city telling her where she could and could not help people in need.

"Everybody can't go to this park or to this church to eat, because some people can't move," Thomas said, describing how she spent Thanksgiving Day driving around in the snow, passing out dozens of meals to homeless people.

"I'm not gonna stop doing it today. Not next week, not next year," she said. "So lock me up today."

Local pastor David Cowan argued his faith called him to help those in need where they were — not based on where city officials want them to be.

"I gotta go where the need is, and the need might be up under a bridge, the need might be in a brook, the need may be anywhere," he said to applause from the crowd. "We gotta go feed them where they are... don't penalize my people for going to feed people."

Not all local organizations shared that sentiment. Jeremy Johnson, director of operations for Grace Resources, said he and the team at the service center were taking a neutral stance on the ordinance.

Johnson said he and his team recognize the great need to help the homeless in the Antelope Valley, adding that they are on track to provide roughly 35,000 hot meals and 20,000 bags of groceries this year. At the same time, he said he understands the city's responsibility to maintain clean and orderly public spaces.

"I don't believe that people are going to starve to death if this ordinance is implemented," he told LAist. "I also believe that many of the homeless clients that we serve are pretty resourceful and will find places to eat, should those outreaches be banned."

Lancaster city council members tabled the vote on the ordinance for a later date. City officials did not respond to a request for comment before publishing time.

This is not the first time Lancaster and its mayor have drawn criticism for how they've handled homelessness in the city.

In 2014, at Parris' direction, Lancaster tried to shut down the local Metrolink station. Parris alleged the city of Los Angeles was putting homeless people on trains and exporting them to the Antelope Valley. KQED looked into those claims, but never found any evidence. Lancaster officials cited a survey they did at the train station but never provided any documents to support their claims.

And in an interview with the Antelope Valley Press this June, Parris doubled down on remarks he made to ABC7, calling homeless people "criminals and thugs" and advising residents to carry concealed firearms for protection.

Brianna Flores and Brian Frank contributed to this story.

UPDATES:

Thursday, Dec. 12, 7:12 a.m.: This article was updated with a link to the draft of Lancaster's proposed Ordinance No. 1071.

This article was originally published at 4:18 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11.