Group’s attempt to feed homeless sparks clash of values
■ By Chris Smith / Advisory Editor
The city’s confusion over how to deal with the homeless population bubbled to the surface over the holidays as a group of young people calling themselves Punx in the Park ran into community resistance after they announced they were collecting food and clothing for Weston Park’s homeless.
The group stirred up a virtual hornets nest on the Hemet Eye News Facebook page after its flier was posted along with a summary of the event that was intended to give out a free meal in the park to the city’s homeless. Part of a larger, international organization called Food Not Bombs, Punx in the Park believes the homeless have a “right” to survival, and that means a “right to food.”
Negative comments started showing up on Facebook soon after the post appeared prompting the city to react by sending the police out in force to ensure the group did not carry through on its intention to give away food to the homeless – at least not in a city park.
According to organizers, they had “shared” food with the homeless in the park on several previous occasions starting last summer, and police had stopped by to check on them, but didn’t prevent them from doing what they had come for. However, once the group issued a formal flier on social media that a food-giveaway was planned, city officials apparently instructed the police to shut down the operation.
It turns out there is a city ordinance against selling or distributing food in a city park without permits from both the city as well as the county. While the group had contacted the county health department and obtained a provisional permit to distribute “soup,” it had failed to take the necessary steps to obtain a follow-on permit from the Parks Commission. Other organizers of events in the city who had paid dearly for permits to have food vendors on premises objected to allowing Punx in the Park to distribute food without a permit and paying the necessary fees.
As the Dec. 29 proposed giveaway got closer, Punx organizers said they planned to distribute the food regardless of the city’s objections because they already had collected it, and they didn’t want it to go to waste. However, when they arrived at Weston Park for the 1 p.m. announced start time, they showed up without any food in sight.
Call by police
Their change of plans followed a call from a police commander the night before to one of the organizers warning that it was illegal to distribute food in the park, and the police would enforce the ordinance. He advised that they cancel the event. Sure enough, as a small group of young people gathered in the park to make a sign stating that, “Food Is a Right, Not a Privilege,” no fewer than five marked police cars and one unmarked car surrounded the park on both sides.
In advance of the police, a group of women, referred to on Facebook as “soccer moms,” parked on the east side of the park watching the mostly young women through binoculars. One unidentified middle-aged woman approached the younger group and began reciting a litany of reasons why feeding the homeless was a bad idea. It endangered children by encouraging people known to be sex traffickers, the woman claimed. One of the Punx, who has children of her own, said later that no one in Hemet ever brings their children to Weston Park anyway, so how could they be endangering children?
Hemet PD Shift Cmdr. Sgt. Bryan Cunningham, assisted by Officer Pat Sobaszek, explained to the young people that while they sympathized with their intention to help the homeless, it is illegal to feed them without a city permit to distribute food. The two officers then went over to the older women parked in several vehicles across the street and had a chat with them, presumably letting them know that no illegal activity was going on in the park at that moment.
There was some tension between the two groups that Cunningham effectively addressed, and eventually the soccer-mom observers got in their vehicles and left, as did most of the police cars. However, one patrol car remained parked on the west side of the park to ensure everyone was behaving in a peaceful and lawful manner as the younger people sang songs, played guitar, and created a sign expressing their views. Later that night, one of the organizers of the event, whose name and phone number was printed on the flier, began getting threats. It’s unclear if the nature of those threats crossed the line in breaking the law or if the victim is pursuing legal recourse.
Meanwhile, a couple of church-based groups showed up in the park and set up a table to distribute Christmas stockings full of toiletries and feminine hygiene products to the homeless. But with a half dozen police cars parked around the perimeter of the park, the homeless suddenly were nowhere to be found.
Nevertheless, the police told Nichelle Wilkins of the Lovin Life organization, and Lyle Coleman of Hope Sack Ministries that they had to pack up their giveaways and leave the public’s park. The police suggested going across the street to the private grounds of a nearby church.
It wasn’t clear what ordinance the police were citing in shutting down this non-food distribution of toiletries for the homeless, and a search of the city ordinances by the Valley Chronicle could find no support for such a directive.
Coleman said afterward that he had tried to distribute food and clothing to the homeless in the park in the past and had been told he couldn’t do so. Wilkins said she had been doing outreach to the homeless for the past six years in hundreds of locations – including city parks – throughout southern California and had never been told that it was impermissible or against the law.
While the Punx in the Park may be down, they are not out. Efforts are underway to raise money for the necessary permits so that they can continue to feed the homeless. Food – and survival – is a right, they say, and even the homeless should not be deprived of such an essential.
See companion article: The social media reaction to the above-described event can be found in the companion article, “Homeless event at Weston Park goes viral,” on page A4.
Do the homeless have rights?
The group’s position that the homeless have a “right” to food is not so far-fetched, as it turns out. In 1948, the United Nations came up with what is called the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The UN commission that conceived and articulated this list of “human rights” was chaired by none other than Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s position, and apparently that of the UN commission, was that unless citizens observe and enforce rights of equal justice, opportunity, and dignity without discrimination at home, there was little chance of seeing progress establishing these rights throughout the world.
Wrote Mrs. Roosevelt: “In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Below is the list of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Note in particular Article 25.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
Everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.
No one shall be held guilty of any penal offense on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offense, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offense was committed.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state.
Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his country.
The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each state, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration can be fully realized.
Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Nothing in this declaration may be interpreted as implying for any state, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.
Shannon Densmore conceived and contributed to this article.