Mercury News June 27, 2017
San José has been working to revitalize the park, and officials say the clandestine food distributions are ultimately not good for the park, the neighborhood or the homeless.
SAN JOSE — A decadeslong tradition for downtown’s hungry and homeless — snagging a free bite to eat at one of the many clandestine feedings at St. James Park — is coming to an end, as the city has decided to crack down on unauthorized distributions at the park.
St. James Park has long been one of the most visible signs of San Jose’s homeless problem, with dozens of homeless people occupying its nearly seven acres just a block from busy Santa Clara Street. City officials this week began notifying homeless advocacy and church groups that the free feedings need to stop, citing health and safety concerns. They said the homeless should be cared for by established programs that provide food and other services.
But many of those who do the feeding as well as those who eat meals at the park say it’s a bad idea, and some have said they will resist any infringement on what they consider a fundamental act of compassion.
“We believe that it’s a church’s right to be able to feed the poor,” said Pastor Scott Wagers, who has been doling out food at the park for 20 years. “That’s an extension of our religious freedom, and the bottom line is we’ll fight for this.”
The feedings, which can be a simple handing out of granola bars or a multicourse meal served hot from insulated pots, are very popular. Wagers said dozens of cross-denominational churches come to the site to give away food: Christian groups, Buddhist groups, and Hindu groups, including a contingent sent by Amma the Hugging Saint.
“On any given Sunday, there are five or six different churches there and often new ones popping up,” he said. “There are easily hundreds of meals given away there on a Sunday.”
But ever since the City Council took up a revitalization plan for the park in 2014, there’s been a push to make it a destination for everybody, said Matt Cano, assistant parks and recreation director.
“Everybody is really focused on making sure that the daily experience of everybody using the park, whether it’s a resident who lives near there or someone doing business near there, is a great experience,” Cano said. “We are trying to reactivate the park, with things like yoga, movies at night, running clubs. We all need great open spaces.”
City officials say they’re not trying to actually force the homeless from the area, they don’t believe the food giveaways benefit the health of the park, the neighborhood — or even the homeless.
Councilman Raul Peralez, who met with homeless advocates Monday to tell them about the coming crackdown, said that while the clandestine feedings are “well intentioned,” they may not meet health regulations and can be inconsistent.
“Feeding our homeless must be done in a manner that is consistent and combined with the other wrap-around services that our homeless neighbors need to get back on their feet,” he wrote in a letter to the advocates.
The goal is to send people at the park to other meal distributions such as the Salvation Army, Martha’s Kitchen or Loaves and Fishes. And to nonprofits such as HomeFirst or LifeMoves that come with referrals to other services.
“The feedings do encourage isolation instead of breaking that chain,” said Jennifer Chen, director of Loaves and Fishes. “It’s also not the most efficient way to help people. It might be better for people to donate to an organization that already does food distribution rather than going out there and buying food on their own.”
Peralez said he’d been hearing from “increasingly frustrated” neighbors who see the park as being overwhelmed with feedings. Dave Truslow, a Hyde Park resident who is in close contact with the St. James neighborhood association, said that while some people “have absolutely nothing but anger and frustration,” most are “hoping there is some way to address the human suffering that’s there.”
“People have cited that the feedings attract a secondary element,” he said. “Not just people who need food, but people who prey on them. There’s drug dealing, people are finding used needles. It dramatically increases at these events.”
But those who rely on the meals say they appreciate the impromptu efforts. Terry Hammer, a 62-year-old homeless man who was at the park Tuesday, said over the weekend someone put out a catered spread on a table — apparently leftovers from a large event.
“We had pulled pork, pulled chicken, white rice, beans and salad,” said Hammer. “There’s a lot of good people out there.”
Hammer said getting rid of the distributions at the park would do nothing to solve the underlying problem — there’s simply not enough easily accessible feeding programs, he said, particularly in the downtown area.
“It’s just going to scatter people out there,” he said, “and they’ll still be hungry.”
Wagers, of CHAM Deliverance Ministry, agreed.
“I think they’re well-meaning, but their services are inadequate. They should accept help from the churches, and let us keep feeding,” he said. “What they do is good, but it doesn’t meet the need.”