Nov. 4 2008 07:58 PM

Church group takes on food-distribution law


As she walks through San Diego's East Village, Madeline McPherson seems more like a den mother than an outreach worker.

“Have you seen Marilee?” she asks as she makes her way past groups of homeless people lining 17th Street.

McPherson hasn't seen Marilee in several days, and she's worried. She's already checked in on Holly, who's been plagued by migraines, and she's got a guy named Nino—in the hospital with a failing kidney—on her mind.

Two years ago, McPherson started Love on the Streets Ministry through the Clairemont Faith Center, where she attends church. She goes out three or four times a week, sometimes with her pastor and other church members, occasionally passing out snacks and other donated items, but mostly forming relationships with Downtown San Diego's homeless population.

On July 2, McPherson, her pastor and two church members brought some donated pizzas to East Village to hand out. It was around the time that management of the Neil Good Day Center—a sort-of day-time refuge where homeless people can go to use the bathroom, make phone calls or just simple be—was changing hands and cutting weekend hours. It was a Wednesday, and McPherson knew that God's Extended Hand, a homeless-outreach nonprofit on 15th Street, wasn't serving dinner that night; handing out slices of pizza seemed like a way to cheer people up and fill a need. Despite the perception that there are plenty of places to get a free meal Downtown, the reality is that not every meal is covered, and some places can only fit so many people, McPherson said. And, the elderly and disabled—who comprise a significant portion of Downtown's homeless population—don't have the stamina to wait in lines that can stretch on for a couple of hours.

As they started handing out pizza—about 50 or 60 people had lined up on the sidewalk—a San Diego Police Department patrol car drove up and asked what was going on. McPherson explained that they were a church group handing out slices of donated pizza. The officers seemed satisfied with her answer, she said. A few minutes later, a second patrol car pulled up, asked the same question, got the same response and, apparently satisfied, drove off.

A few minutes later, a third patrol car came by. This time, though, the officers asked McPherson if she had a permit.

“I said, ‘Well, OK, I'm certified in food service—I have a certification for the whole state of California.'” The officer told her that what he was looking for was a permit from the city.

Though food-service workers from St. Vincent de Paul had come over to help distribute the pizza, the officers only ticketed McPherson's group. They were cited under a provision of the city's municipal code that says that “no food, beverages, merchandise or services shall be sold or distributed… upon public property without the authorization of a public entity.” The crime is an infraction, meaning it won't go on anyone's record, but each ticket carries a $210 penalty.

“If we thought we were doing something wrong, or we thought that there was a problem, we wouldn't have done it,” McPherson said. “We could pay it,” she said of the tickets, “but it would be a tremendous burden to us. It would be discouraging to church members who are trying to reach out to the homeless.”

A friend suggested that McPherson contact Scott Dreher, who, in 2004, along with attorney Tim Cohelan, filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of nine homeless people who were ticketed for sleeping in public. The lawsuit was ultimately settled when the city agreed that police wouldn't issue illegal-lodging tickets between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. unless they receive a complaint.

Scott Norman, an attorney who works for Dreher, filed a formal objection to the food-distribution tickets on Oct. 27, asking that they be dismissed at a Nov. 14 hearing. The case focuses on a comment the ticketing officer allegedly made to McPherson when she asked him how she could go about obtaining a permit. “You can't,” the officer reportedly told her. “I live in this neighborhood, and I don't want these people here.”

“Basing that decision [to issue tickets] on I don't want these people in my neighborhood—that's unconstitutional,” Dreher said.

“If I go down there with you, and we're walking down the street, and I hand you a piece of pizza—we're not homeless, so that's not criminal,” he said. “But if I'm homeless and you give me a piece of pizza—that's criminal? Cops don't get that kind of discretion to decide if it's criminal based on who's [involved].”

Shortly before CityBeat went to press on Tuesday, Chris Morris, head of the City Attorney's criminal division, said the tickets would be dismissed. Ticketing people like McPherson's group “doesn't jibe with [City Attorney Mike Aguirre's] policy on the homeless,” Morris said. He added that he wants to encourage people to hand out pre-packaged food “so there's not a health issue.”

Dreher was thrilled with Morris' decision but said he'd like the city to strike the law from its books. Based on his research of the municipal code, it appears that particular subsection was added to dissuade people from providing food to the homeless. “Let's come up with a good policy,” he said, that isn't open to interpretation.

Though the San Diego Police Department doesn't keep track of how many tickets have been issued for distributing food without a permit, Chris Ball, captain of the SDPD's Central Division, called the tickets McPherson's group received “an anomaly.”

“I just went around the office,” he told CityBeat, “and talked to a couple of sergeants and said, ‘Are we ticketing people who hand out food to the homeless?' and they said no.

Ball said the SDPD is “not actively discouraging people” from handing out food to the homeless, though officers may issue warnings if the activity puts people in danger. There's a group that hands out breakfast near the division offices, he said. When officers noticed that a mom with a stroller had to step into the street to get around the group, they asked them to move to a safer spot. “We told folks to move around the corner, and we haven't had a problem since,” he said.

McPherson said she still goes out a few times a week and distributes small amounts of food, though she does it discretely. She often sees other church groups, student groups and well-meaning people handing out boxed lunches and water, mostly through what the homeless refer to as “drive-bys.”

“The word on the street is that the police are going to get you, so they quickly just hand them the bags and off they go,” McPherson said.

One retired couple CityBeat spoke to who regularly distribute water and packaged snacks (and who requested that their names not be used), said that while they've never received more than “unhappy glances” from police officers, they were asked recently by a homeless woman whether they're afraid of being ticketed. “We're too old to be afraid,” they told her.

Marvin Bradshaw, one of the men McPherson has befriended, said there have been fewer drive-bys. He's not sure if it's because of the economy or because word got around about the tickets.

“People think, Cut off food supply and they're going to head elsewhere,” he said. “It doesn't work like that. There's no place else to go.”

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