Friday, July 13, 2007

Church group cannot feed the homeless in Albuquerque park, police say

By Michael Gisick, Albuquerque Tribune

A Catholic group that gives free meals to homeless people is looking for a new place to serve after the city barred it from handing out food at a Downtown park.

The move comes after months of complaints by residents and business owners, who say the Sunday meals at Robinson Park draw drug dealers and other criminal activity to the area and leave the park and their yards fouled by trash and human waste.

But members of the Trinity House, a South Valley group, worry the decision will leave homeless people with few options for a Sunday meal and effectively limit their access to public space.

The group says it plans to go on serving meals from privately owned parking lots and is looking at several other parks as possible permanent locations.

"We want everybody to be happy," said Marcus Page, a founder of Trinity House. "If I have to choose between the happiness of the cops and the happiness of the homeless people, I'm going to choose the homeless people. But I don't want to have to choose."

Trinity House, which draws on the traditions of left-wing Catholic activism, has clashed with some Downtown residents since the group began serving Sunday meals about two years ago. While city officials acknowledge that the group has improved the way it cleans up the park after meals, Trinity House still hasn't allayed neighbors' concerns.

Those issues came to a head during a June 26 meeting between city officials and service providers for homeless people, officials say. Trinity House was told their application for a food service permit had been rejected. The next time they arrived at the park, they were met by police.

"With all the complaints we were getting, it came to our attention that nobody from the Police Department had approved their permits," Albuquerque police Detective Liz Thompson said, adding that police have seen an uptick in crime near the park. "There had been no input from the neighborhood."

Thompson is part of the Albuquerque police crisis and outreach team, which tries to link homeless people with services rather than treat them as criminals. She said the dialogue with Trinity House is continuing.

"The door isn't closed by any means," she said. "We do not want people to stop helping the homeless. But the parks don't really have the appropriate infrastructure - electricity, hot and cold running water, bathrooms."

Thompson said a number of ideas were floated during the June meeting.

The Library Bar and Grill on Central Avenue offered to donate food and the use of its kitchen if Trinity House could find somewhere to serve meals besides Robinson Park, located at Central Avenue and Eighth Street.

Thompson said she suggested a rotating schedule of meals at different parks to keep Robinson Park and its neighborhood from being overburdened. She also suggested Trinity House find a partner to provide an indoor location for the meals.

Page, who attended the meeting, said his group has gotten permission to prepare meals at the South Valley Economic Development Center's commercial-grade kitchen. That should allay concern's linked to the group's food service permit, which had been rejected, Page said.

A separate permit to serve on city-owned property may be a tougher hurdle, however.

Complicating matters for Trinity House is that a number of other church groups also sometimes hand out food at the Downtown park. Thompson said she's counted at least three and believes as many as six other groups make occasional forays Downtown from as far away as Belen.

Thompson said crime often follows the groups' departure.

"You have a certain element that comes and preys on those people," she said. "Believe it or not, as little as many homeless people have, there are people who will rob them."

Drug activity is also a problem, she said.

Although Trinity House's food-serving permit is still pending, Page said the group plans to go on serving from private property.

"We're going to stay away from the park because we don't want to fight that battle," he said. "We're hoping the cops won't want to enforce the health permit. How much of a crime is it to want to feed people?"

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