Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Philly Homeless Get 'Dinner With Dignity' but Health Dept Wants Changes

Bill Golderer, of Broad Street Ministry (philly.com)
Most of us have seen it: A poor person digging through a trash can or dumpster, hoping to find something to eat. Perhaps some of you have done that. It is humiliating for the hungry person who does it. It is also dangerous, because you don't know what kind of dreadful illness might be contracted.

A non-profit group in Philadelphia is doing its part to help those who are forced to scrounge for food.

The food and kindness are served up at Broad Street Ministry, a "broad-minded Christian community." For those in Philly, they are located at 315 South Broad Street (across from the University of the Arts and the Kimmel Center for Performing arts-between Spruce and Pine). BSM's website says that "Philadelphia is experiencing an alarming upturn in homelessness among men, women and children. Shelters are running beyond capacity and many of the most vulnerable of our city will not brave the existing shelter system out of fear or due to mental illness. There is a need for a creative response to this chronic problem."

Sadly, however, the group's efforts are not without controversy, as we learn in two excellent reports. The first one comes from the Philadelphia Daily News website (philly.com);

"There is nothing dignified about fishing food scraps from the trash," writes Ronnie Polaneczky, Daily News Columnist. "Or lining up with others on Logan Circle hoping that the soup being ladled by Good Samaritans won't run out before everyone's bowl is filled. The search for food is demoralizing and terrifying, as the homeless deal with the fallout of lives in which they belong nowhere and, often, to no one. So it's miraculous that, at least twice a week, hundreds of homeless men and women enjoy a dignified dining experience on South Broad Street, within steps of the gleaming Suzanne Roberts Theatre and the equally shiny Kimmel Center. They sit on comfortable chairs at cloth-covered tables and eat hearty meals served on real plates, with real silverware and real cups. They are offered second and third helpings and are encouraged to take extra fruit and bread when they leave."

Despite that need, there are those who would try to thwart the good efforts of Broad Street Ministry. Polaneczky reports that Philadelphia's Health Commissioner Don Schwarz has proposed "regulations that would require those Good Samaritans to obtain 'outdoor feeding' permits from the city, and to use department-inspected commercial kitchens to prepare the food they serve."  You can read more of Polaneczky's February 14, 2012 column at philly.com.

The other, equally informative article is found at NewsWorks.com. Writer Carolyn Beeler notes that the City of Philadelphia "might soon require those who hand out food to the homeless to obtain permits.
A draft regulation adopted by the board of health Thursday evening would require kitchens where food is prepared to be inspected, and for at least one volunteer trained in safe food handling to be on site when food is served." According to Beeler, Commissioner Schwarz "said the board realized after Occupy Philadelphia set up camp near City Hall that it had no authority to ensure the food being passed out there was prepared safely, and wanted to mandate education efforts. Both the permits and training would be free."

I hope that Philadelphia's Department of Health can work out an arrangement that is reasonable and that will not force Broad Street Ministry to stop their outdoor food program. In fairness, though, it must be said that food prepared in an unsanitary manner in somebody's kitchen can be just as dangerous as food found in a dumpster. Under the proposed rule, reports Beeler, "groups would be required to have a hand-washing station on location. They would have to notify the health department when applying for permits where and when they plan to serve food for the next year and what kind of food it might be."

That does not sound unreasonable to me. I'm inclined to think that Commissioner Schwarz has only the best of intentions, and it is no more unreasonable to mandate food safety education for groups such as Broad Street Ministry as it is for licensed restaurants. It would be a terrible irony if dozens of homeless hungry people became seriously ill, perhaps fatally, by food poisoning that could have been easily avoided with a little bit of free training.
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