Food Not Bombs defies Denver and refuses to relocate its outdoor meal program

Though the city of Denver has urged charities that serve the homeless outdoors to move their operations inside, at least one group is defying that order. The Denver chapter of Food Not Bombs pledged to stay put for its Wednesday Civic Center Park meal, contending that the city’s Come On In program is meant to hide the homeless. Food Not Bombs, an international peace organization that serves meals to protesters, the homeless and natural disaster victims, has been serving in Denver for the past decade. And though the group says that Denver police have visited its weekly meals, the charity will keep feeding the hungry.

Volunteers with Food Not Bombs were involved in the city’s early discussions about ending homeless feedings in parks and public areas. In 2006 the city organized a group called the Public Feeding Coalition. Made up of so-called "feeders" like Food Not Bombs, employees with the city’s Department of Human Services and members of the Commission to End Homelessness, among others, the group discussed the best way to bring Denver’s outdoor charities — and the homeless they feed — inside. Once inside, city officials argued, the homeless would have better access to restrooms, sinks and social services. Indoor meals would also solve the issue of trash left behind in parks, which neighbors had complained about for years. Over the past year the resulting program, called Come On In, has persuaded 12 of the 17 outdoor charities to stop feeding in parks. The bulk of those groups, say city officials, have moved indoors. Yet Food Not Bombs opposed the program early on.

"The bottom line is that we are having a picnic in the park," says Maria Rose, a volunteer who has been serving with Food Not Bombs for the past five years. The group, which is funded by private donations and proceeds from benefit concerts, provides food for around two dozen homeless people at each weekly meal. Volunteers clean up after each meal in a process that generates little debris, since they use reusable dishware. "We have been doing it for 10 years," says Rose. "Maybe the eggshells will still be [on the park lawn after the meal], but the birds will eat those. We care about how the park looks, too."

Rose and others consider the Come On In program a thinly veiled effort to get the homeless out of the parks before the Democratic National Convention. "It seems so obvious," she says.

But Denver officials say that’s not the case. "Oh, God, no," says Commander Deborah Dilley of the Denver Police Department’s District 6, which includes downtown and Civic Center Park. "It has nothing to do with the Democratic National Convention."

Dilley acknowledges Food Not Bombs’ right to remain outdoors; the city decided not to pass an ordinance banning outdoor meals since nearly all the outdoor groups moved their operations when asked.

"Food Not Bombs, they will never feed indoors," says Dilley. "They had frank and good conversations about why they would not feed indoors." Volunteers with the organization say that the meal is an important ritual for those involved and that taking it indoors could isolate some homeless — especially the mentally ill,who are resistant to shelters.

Members of the group also say that the outdoor meals — which take place at 4 p.m. every Wednesday on the south end of Civic Center Park — have been regularly visited by law enforcement.

"I have seen an increase in policing and park rangers," says Mackenzie Liman, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs. "People still venture out to get services. But there is a feeling that people are uncomfortable downtown." She says that law enforcement has approached the Civic Center Park meal when it has grown particularly large. In Denver, groups with 25 or more people must receive a permit in order to eat in the park. But Civic Center Park is considered "nonpermittable," according to Dilley, which means that large groups should not be eating in the park, period, unless it’s a major city event, like the Denver Pride Fest. Yet Dilley says that the police have not enforced that rule, since it would outlaw sack lunches for classes on field trips in addition to the Food Not Bombs meal. Dilley says that to her knowledge, the police have not ticketed Food Not Bombs. When the police do approach, Liman says that the group typically splits in half, with one half moving across the street to avoid questions about the size of the event.

One Food Not Bombs volunteer, Geylfling Forcewynd, says that police appear at the weekly meal and check to see if anyone eating has a warrant against him or her. Both she and Liman feel that Food Not Bombs is unfairly targeted by these police visits. "People have birthday parties in the parks. But if you share food with people who are homeless, you can expect to be visited," says Liman. Food Not Bombs is particularly wary of government scrutiny; in 2004 the FBI penned a file on one Denver Food Not Bombs volunteer named Sarah Bardwell; she was also visited by six investigators just weeks before that year’s Republican National Convention in New York.

In the spring Food Not Bombs asked Denver’s CopWatch, a group promoting police accountability, to survey its meals. "They believed that once the camera was on that the harassment would stop," says Vicki Nash, a CopWatch volunteer who monitored last week’s Civic Center Park feeding wearing a yellow vest and a camera around her neck.

Dilley says that CopWatch’s presence won’t deter her officers from approaching anyone. But Liman contends that the police visits have indeed diminished in recent months.

Even so, she says she is still concerned about the greater implications of the Come On In program. "The most upsetting part is this attitude that it is OK to push [homeless] people away in order to do something that everyone will eventually get accustomed to. The people who make the most sacrifices don’t have the opportunity to be heard."

This is Part Three of a three-part series on the growing controversy between city officials and homeless service programs ahead of the Democratic National Convention.

Read Part One: Denver rids parks of homeless meals; charity says DNC to blame.

And Part Two: Denver’s push to end outdoor homeless meals may isolate some, advocates say

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Naomi Zeveloff

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