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Food Sharing Compromise in Cleveland Ohio

Written by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless

 Local advocates convened meetings between the City of Cleveland and the 13 religious and civic organizations that had in their core mission to provide food to lower income communities.  The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless had an interest in preventing legislation to restrict food and to try to improve the coordination among the various social service and religious organizations.  There were many who felt that the current system did not work in that there was feast of famine with the food distribution. There was a great deal of wasted food, there was no running water or wash basins to clean up before a meal; there were problems with overwhelmed trash containers on the weekend, and the City was concerned over the expense of cleaning up Public Square. The health care providers in the community were concerned that their clients who were resistant to shelter were getting sick because the inconsistent feeding schedules and the inability to find food that meets their unique dietary needs.  NEOCH’s had a goal of finding a compromise between all the divergent interests that improved the access to food and running water while providing for adequate trash collection.  NEOCH held meetings over nine months with city officials, religious groups, Food Not Bombs, and social service providers to discuss all these concerns with the distribution of food downtown and come to some compromise. 

 While there was a great deal of resistance to moving the location inside, because of the fear that the mission driven groups would have to comprise their message, there was agreement in working with the other groups to better coordinate food distribution.  Eventually with the assistance of the City of Cleveland, a new site was identified 18 blocks from Public Square near many of the shelters in the community.  The City of Cleveland paid for additional trash pick up and security for a parking lot behind a social service provider’s building.  The security was available to open the door and allow participants in the meal to use the bathrooms.  During inclement weather, the groups were allowed to use a conference room to distribute food.  The social service provider also had trained outreach workers who could assist the groups if they had issues with homeless people having mental health issues. 

It was the City of Cleveland’s position that groups would be allowed to sign an agreement that they would clean up and take care in distributing quality food and they would be free to distribute at the parking lot.  If they wanted to distribute on Public Square, they would have to seek a special event permit each time they wanted to serve.  Most of the groups relocated to this new food distribution point and signed the agreement.  Food Not Bombs refused to relocate and refused to seek a permit.  They felt that as an anarchist organization they could not apply for a permit, and they refused to give up Public Square.  They relocated to another location on their own, but periodically utilize Public Square in order to distribute food.  Most of the homeless population have relocated to be closer to where the food is distributed and away from Public Square.  There are very few individuals who sleep on Public Square since the food was relocated.

NEOCH believes that there is a chance for all parties to reach a compromise, and we would vigorously oppose legislation by government to infringe on the rights of religious groups to practice their ministry.

 This is the summary from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty report on food sharing.

 Sometimes when cities impose restrictions on food sharing activities, it is clear that groups that share food are being targeted. Other times, local advocates, food sharing groups and city officials disagree on the best way to coordinate food sharing in a manner that addresses all concerns. For example, in 2007, Cleveland, Ohio city officials stopped the local Food Not Bombs group from sharing food with homeless people at Public Square, a meal distribution site that had been used by the group for ten years. Both the city and some local advocates felt that the current system did not work because there was a lot of food waste, trash, no bathrooms, and inconsistent food access. Meetings between the City of Cleveland and the 13 religious and civic organizations were held to coordinate food sharing groups. The meetings led to the relocation from Public Square to a parking lot behind the Mental Health Services, 18 blocks away, where participants could also use the bathroom. The City of Cleveland agreed to pay for additional trash pick up and security for the parking lot. As long as groups sign an agreement with the city to clean up they would be able to serve freely in the parking lot, but would need to obtain a permit if they wanted to serve in Public Square. Cleveland Food Not Bombs believes food sharing should continue in Public Square and their volunteers continue to serve meals there.