Denver’s push to end outdoor homeless meals may isolate some, advocates say

A Denver program to limit meals provided to the homeless in parks has been hailed by officials as a success. Since its inception in 2006, Come On In has reduced the number of outdoor "feeder" groups — as the city calls them — from 17 to five; many of these charities have since moved their meals indoors. The city’s plan hinges on the notion that indoor meals for the homeless are a safer, cleaner option. But many homeless advocates disagree, saying that some mentally ill and homeless people will simply refuse to come inside to eat. And for these individuals, outdoor meals may be the only option.

The city initiated its Come On In program by hosting discussions with Denver’s Commission to End Homelessness, members of the Department of Human Services, charities that served the homeless, the police and others. The group, which was dubbed the Public Feeding Coalition, was provided with handouts explaining the rationale for feeding homeless individuals inside. "Feeding people inside is more humane, healthier," reads one such document. "Individuals can eat with dignity, wash their hands and use a toilet."

"I would say it is safer" to eat inside, says Deborah Ortega, executive director of Denver’s Commission to End Homelessness. "Because generally you have staff inside the facilities. There is at least some sense of organization, whereas when these meals are offered outside, you don’t have that structure."

Ortega says that fights among clients are more likely to escalate in an outdoor setting, since there is typically no trained staff on hand.

Greta Walker, spokeswoman for the Denver Rescue Mission, agrees. More than 10 groups that once fed people outside have since moved their operations to the Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street shelter, which serves three meals a day year round. Many of those groups previously served just outside the shelter. "Sometimes we have seen it become moblike. There were a hundred or more homeless people outside in one area," Walker says. "We have seen problems escalate in our dining room, but we have staff there to take care of any of those situations immediately."

Yet some homeless advocates question whether indoor eating is for everyone, especially for the mentally ill, who make up a huge number of the state’s homeless population. In 2006 nearly half of Colorado’s homeless — or more than 7,600 people — had a serious mental illness or a substance abuse problem.

"The problem is there are people who are nuts who don’t like to be inside. There are people with disabilities that don’t want to relate to the world, and they don’t want to go into a shelter," says Randle Loeb, a formerly homeless person who serves on the boards of several Denver and statewide organizations that address the homeless. Loeb cites one daily outdoor meal in Denver, saying, "The people there are not sitting down. They are getting sandwiches and drinks and stuff like that. For some individuals who are more wayward, that is probably the only way they are going to eat except out of a trash can or something. They are not socially interested in working together with other people."

Mackenzie Liman serves a weekly meal in Civic Center Park with the group Food Not Bombs. Liman, who participated in the Public Feeding Coalition, voiced concerns early on with Come On In, and her group has continued to feed the homeless in defiance of the program.

"Meals in Denver are typically in church basements," she says. "They have an institutional feel to them. They are male-dominated, and some people aren’t comfortable eating there. There isn’t anything wrong with having a diversity of ways to feed people."

Denver officials maintain that the Come On In program is the best way to treat the homeless with dignity and to make sure that Denver’s parks stay free of debris. "We wanted to do the most respectful thing for human beings," says Commander Deborah Dilley of Denver Police Department’s District 6, which encompasses the downtown area, including Civic Center Park.

Many don’t buy it, saying that the city just wants to decrease the visibility of the homeless.

"Out of all the things the city said, that has to be the silliest thing that the city has come up with," says Reuben Gregory, a homeless outreach worker who attended the Public Feeding Coalition meetings. "To say that is more humane, well, is that the best they could come up with to cover this?"

This is part two 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.

Tomorrow: Food Not Bombs defies the Come On In program.

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Naomi Zeveloff

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