The City of San Antonio hosted a Homeless Feeding Summit on Tuesday to engage the community, city leaders, and local organizations in a conversation about how to balance the need to enforce health and safety regulations with the need – of some citizens – to give food to the city’s most desperate population. About 100 people showed up to a meeting room in the Central Public Library to have their say and learn more about the issue.
Joan Cheever, a local nonprofit food truck owner and chef, who has become the unofficial face of the local good Samaritan movement, attended the summit with a critical eye and a copy of a draft ordinance.
The proposed revision would relax regulations for mobile food vendors to make an exception for individuals and organizations who want to feed homeless people.
This is the second draft she’s produced in the last month. Cheever also has a federal lawsuit up her sleeve, one that she has threatened to file if the City doesn’t repeal the existing ordinance to allow for individuals or organizations to safely feed homeless people throughout the city.
She has since relaxed her terms and 10 day deadline for filing the lawsuit, and opted to write this revision to the ordinance prohibiting distribution of food from a personal vehicle without a permit. For now.
“I’m skeptical,” she said before the meeting. “I’ve talked to the city for six years but I guess I can wait a couple of more days.”
Instead of making them go through a lengthy health inspection and licensing process, Cheever’s proposal would have the City provide a food safety training course four times a year, either in-person or online, where attendees could receive a certificate valid for two years. Her “Good Samaritan Ordinance” proposal states that only one person from an organization would have to take the course so long as that person is present during the time the food is distributed to the homeless.
Cheever was previously ticketed and faced a $2,000 fine for her practice of serving hot meals to the homeless delivered in her personal vehicle, a charge later dropped by City officials in the wake of public sentiment and national publicity supporting her charitable endeavors.
Early on in the meeting, Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) was optimistic that an amicable arrangement could be made. “Let’s figure out how to refine the policies … and get input to figure out what needs to be changed,” he said.
Nirenberg is the chair of the City’s Quality of Life Committee, the likely next step for Cheever’s proposal if it goes anywhere. She handed out copies to multiple City officials.
“I am here to work forward with the city,” she said. “If they are really interested in food safety, then the ordinance needs to be revised.”
Cheever, and her draft lawsuit, claim that the existing ordinance is illegal because it violates her religious freedom and freedom of speech, therefore abridging the First Amendment. Many faiths include a mandate for members to help the poor, she said the ordinance is encroaching on the ability to practice that aspect of their faith.
“You can not make a good Samaritan into a criminal,” she said.
Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1) addressed Cheever’s proposal at the end of the summit.
“I think we can expand on (Cheever’s proposed revision) and look at some programs right away,” he said. “I know we have the will to do that.”
Throughout the meeting, some individuals and organizations told anecdotes about a time they helped a person in need. Others were former homeless individuals who shared their personal stories.
The meeting aimed to generate a dialogue between those who lend a helping hand to the homeless while presenting City staff information about homeless feeding practices. The results of the summit will be presented to City Council in the fall with policy recommendations.
Nirenberg said he wants San Antonio to be known as a compassionate city that allows people to help one another.
“We are a city of compassion,” he said. “We are a city of charity and hope and today’s discussion will only hear that out.”
Mark Johnson, the executive director of Taking it to the Streets, a faith-based organization that helps homeless people, said there’s an issue surrounding the lack of public restrooms. Johnson’s comment stirred the crowd, and multiple people interjected, saying that homeless individuals are not allowed to use the restroom in most downtown businesses.
Treviño said the issue regarding available public bathrooms for homeless people seems to be a uniquely solvable problem.
“We gotta have a solution for public restrooms,” he said.
Johnson brought up another topic regarding accessibility for the homeless: public transportation. He asked the City if it could provide ministries, churches, and other organizations a reduced price on bus passes to give out to those in need.
“(That’s a) really great idea,” Treviño said. “Let’s look at how we can make that happen.”
Treviño said he will also propose a way to hand out more first aid kits to the homeless.
Haven For Hope Vice President Scott Ackerson said he is looking to Austin’s Community First! Village as a potential model for San Antonio. The nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes created the 27-acre community located on the outskirts of Austin to provide homeless people a place to live and work together.
“People are looking for a community and the only place they can find a community is encampment,” Ackerson said. “We are looking to get them that community.”
Treviño wrapped up the summit with a positive outlook for the future of homelessness in San Antonio.
“Good Samaritans should not have to be in service of the city, the city should be in service of the good Samaritans,” he said. “We want to help you do the good that you do.”
*Featured/top image: Joan Cheever points out a spot to sit during the Homeless Feeding Summit on Tuesday. Photo by Scott Ball.