Raleigh Police Stop Local Humanists From Distributing Food to Homeless

For years now, several groups around Raleigh, North Carolina have been giving food and clothing to the homeless in Moore Square. The media has been lumping them all together as “church groups” but one of them is a Humanist service group called Human Beans Together, who have been distributing goods there since January of 2012.

A food distribution (via Human Beans Together Facebook page)

A few weeks ago, the Raleigh Police Department told them they couldn’t hand out food in public space, so they all moved to the nearby Salvation Army’s parking lot… until the city took that space over, too.

This past weekend, all that goodwill came to a sudden halt when the police shut them down:

“An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested,” the Rev. Hugh Hollowell wrote on the [Love Wins Ministries'] website. “We asked the officers for permission to disperse the biscuits to the over 70 people who had lined up, waiting to eat. They said no. I had to face those who were waiting and tell them that I could not feed them, or I would be arrested.”

The Raleigh police were there to enforce a city ordinance that bans the distribution of food in any of the city’s parks

The ordinance in question is one that is so poorly worded that it could theoretically be construed as a ban on picnics in city parks:

Distribution of food prohibited

No individuals or group shall serve or distribute meals or food of any kind in or on any City park or greenway unless such distribution is pursuant to a permit issued by the Parks, Recreation and Greenway Director.

It’s not a horrible ordinance — you could argue it helps maintain safety and protects the city against any liability issues. I still don’t get why the police decided to enforce this law now after years of allowing the generosity to thrive… It’s also important to note that a similar prohibition was found unconstitutional in Orlando, Florida in 2008.

But okay, how about a permit then?

Here’s Hollowell:

each permit to use the park costs $800. Yes, eight hundred dollars. That would cost us $1,600 every weekend, and the officer we spoke to said the City likely wouldn’t approve it anyway.

Raleigh’s Law and Public Safety Committee met earlier today to discuss the food distribution to the homeless at its regular meeting.

Hopefully this can come to a quick resolution so that the Christian and atheist groups can continue doing the good work they do.

(Thanks to Carmen for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • WallofSleep

    Interesting. In the CNN clip they began with the premise that it was a church group, and then ran with it. Whether that was by design or accident, it’s still freaking awesome.

    The god-bothers will see this segment and likely go apeshit, rushing right to their keyboards to pound away about yet another example of our tyrannical gov’t oppressing the poor christian ‘minority’, and how they, yet again, won’t stand for it any more.

    Then when it comes out that it was a humanist group, I (we?) can sit back and watch them sputter like a diesel engine on fire while they try, miserably, to reverse their position without looking like hypocrites.

    EDIT: I know that last bit is unlikely to happen. More likely, they’ll just do what they always do. Pretend it never happened and try to deny they ever commented on it. Just like the lying hypocrites they are.

    • Tom in Raleigh

      This wasn’t a religious based issue here in Raleigh (nor is this town especially bible-thumping) it was a human one.

      • WallofSleep

        Right. Did you watch the CNN clip I was referring too?

  • Tom in Raleigh

    Out Mayor, Nancy McFarlane was all over this one. The cops did this without letting her, or the city council know what was up.

    She took charge, has waived the permit requirement until they can come up with a permanent solution to this issue.

    Just so everyone knows, doing something in Moore Sq here is akin to doing something in Central Park NYC…thus, the high permit fee, though that is really for events, to pay for police and cleanup.

    • WallofSleep

      That’s true in a lot of places, and there are some cities which prohibit giving anything to homeless people no matter what the location.

      • Tom in Raleigh

        Yeah. Despite the retardation of our General assembly…Raleigh is a rather accepting and progressive city.

    • islandbrewer

      So, Tom, what triggered the sudden enforcement this year? New police chief? The park calling the PD and saying “Don’t forget to check groups in our park for permits!”?

      • Tom in Raleigh

        Not sure. I heard something about the trash being left in place (that is why the permit costs are so high…cleanup is a bitch) but no word, yet, on why the sudden enforcement.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Thank you the update. This sounded out of character, even if it were, say, only a Humanist group instead of a coalition.

    • jdm8

      Is there any indication who was behind the change in police demeanor? From the initial reports, it seemed like someone was pulling the strings to cause police to change how they interacted with this group, from accepting to threatening arrests.

      • Tom in Raleigh

        I can’t really say. That hasn’t come out yet. It’s an interesting time here. Raleigh is pretty liberal (one of the areas that was mostly against the anti-gay marriage amendment a few years ago) for the most part.

        I could guess…but that really wouldn’t answer the question.

  • James_Jarvis

    Whether you are Christian or Atheist the moral thing is to stand with the poor and oppressed. Any society that makes it a crime to feed the poor and homeless has lost its moral centre.

    • Tom in Raleigh

      Meh. The cops were just stopping it at this one place, and without an active community discussion on how to handle things….which is now happening.

    • WallofSleep

      I was homeless for a time, but I had the advantage of a car to sleep in and a job to go to. Sure, the car was tiny, cramped and missing the window seals, and the job was shitty, minimum wage, and the hours barely qualified as part-time, but that’s more than most homeless folk have.

      No, I have no idea what it’s truly like to live on the streets, but I do know this: when you have more time than money, and no place to call home, the tiniest kindness can mean the world to you, even if it’s something as simple as a ten minute chat.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    This is weird, it says “8 comments” and “No one has commented yet.”

    nm, fixed now.

    • allein

      The comment count has been messed up for a while..I blame Disqus.

  • A3Kr0n

    If everyone is so sorry this happened why not get rid of the ordinance, or would that make too much sense?

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Alas, there are some legitimate potential food safety issues with these sorts of hand-outs. It does not help the homeless much if their numbers are being culled by botulism, trichinosis, and salmonella.

      • skinnercitycyclist

        Much better that they should exploit other handy food sources such as dumpsters. Much preferable in terms of food safety.

  • Tadg Galleran

    Homeless people are used as property value levers when the Big wallets want the property value to go down in a certain neighborhood so they can buy on the cheap…all of a sudden there is crime and homelessness and the services that follow them….When the big dough club members have made their purchases and have plans in the works for redevelopment…the police show up to shoo away the riff raff. The strong do what they will the weak suffer what they must.

  • Donald Zepp

    Thanks, Hemant. The committee meeting this evening ended with its passing a motion that effectively restores the pre-crackdown days, i.e., the City will not require charitable groups feeding the homeless to have permits or otherwise harass or arrest us…for the time being.

    Curiously, though, at no point in the meeting did anyone identify _who_ made the decision to threaten us and several other groups with arrest (and make no mistake, we were told we would be arrested!). No one has stepped up to say: “It was my decision,” instead there has been a whole lot of backpedaling.

    So calmer heads have temporarily prevailed, and our secular group, Human Beans Together, will continue to feed and assist those in need with no message other than “We want to help our fellow “human beans.”

    • TheG

      Why, in the name of all that is delicious, did you not just address the line and say, “Folks, we would love to give you this food. But THAT officer RIGHT THERE said we would be arrested. So I guess we’re just going to go home and throw all this food away. I know you’re hungry, but tell it to that officer.” You wod have seen both back pedaling and full stomachs.
      I’m glad it turned out well, but the officer could have come to the right conclusion quicker on his own.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        That would be reckless and probably qualify as incitement. And the officers are almost certainly not the ones who originally decided to harass people for charity work.

        The officers should have found something that they needed to look into somewhere else, but they may not have had the option.

        • Randay

          From reading the article, it seems the group was on the sidewalk and not in the park. Is there a city ordenance against feeding people on the sidewalk or did the police overstep their bounds?

          There was also mention of “developing” the area. As one of the homeless said, they want to get rid of the riff-raff. That often happens when developers want make money.

          • eric

            At one point they weren’t even on a sidewalk, they were in the parking lot of a Salvation Army center. Which really undermines all of ‘guest’s’ complaints about it being done in an inappropriate location.

        • skinnercitycyclist

          I would suggest a Gandhian alternative to inciting the hungry. If I were the server, I would simply tell the cop that I was going to serve the food anyway, I would begin to do it, and he would be free, I guess, to take me to jail. Then another server steps in and begins serving food. For best visuals, have servers lined up like satyagrahis at a salt works, ready to be arrested. THAT would look good on YouTube.

          • guest

            you go first

            • Donald Zepp

              For what it’s worth, there were several of us who had agreed that we would, indeed, continue serving our hungry friends had the City of Raleigh not relented, knowing that we’d be hauled off to jail.

              Incidentally, my wife and I (2 of the Human Beans Co-Founders) were among the nearly 1000 people arrested a few weeks ago at the NC Moral Monday protests, and by gum, if feeding the hungry is a crime, I’ll go to jail again.

      • Artor

        No, if someone incited a mob, I’m sure THAT officer would call in backup, and everyone would get beaten, tazed and pepper sprayed. Instead, find out who made the decision to suddenly apply the law this way, and let local voters know their name, and keep reminding them.

        • Monika Jankun-Kelly

          Yes. This! Take it up with those responsible, make them face political consequences and public shaming, without harming those low on the totem pole, without mobs, without violence.

          • skinnercitycyclist

            But every cop who enforces an unjust law is nothing but a “Good German” in my book. Just following orders, mein Herr!

        • guest

          “apply the law” are the key words here. You see atheists always bitching about how tradition does not trump law when it comes to things like separation of church of state, yet somehow it seems wrong to suddenly “apply the law” in this instance? A public park is no place to have homeless people gather for handouts. Period. Sure, they could have found a more tactful way to handle this situation, like giving the groups a warning first instead of threatening people with arrest, but the law is the law. I hope they’ve found a more suitable place to do their charity work because doing this in a park is just asinine.

          • Artor

            Understood, and people should definitely be working to update the law here. But the point is that someone is maliciously applying this law with the specific intent to starve homeless people. And while a public park might not be the best place for a soup kitchen, what was wrong with the privately owned St. Vinnie’s parking lot? Someone in the chain of command has a hard-on for screwing over the most vulnerable people. Voters in the area need to know who it is.

          • Donald Zepp

            We feed the hungry in a public park because that’s where hungry people are.

            What is “asinine” is writing an ordinance proscribing the sharing of food by _anyone_ in the City’s parks who has not paid for an $800/day permit the law requires. Should they really arrest a mother who gives her kid a lollipop, as the law requires? Really?

            I’m just thankful that the City has listened, and wants to help the homeless and other disadvantaged. In that spirit, they have agreed to continue to turn a blind eye while responses to the bigger problems can be crafted.

            • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

              $800 is lot of food.

    • guest

      and is this still going to be done in a public park? Or has anyone found a more appropriate place to do this?

      • eric

        The democratically elected local government just decided this WAS an appropriate place to do it. Isn’t that what you want – local government making decisions on what’s best for the local community?

      • Donald Zepp

        Following Sutton’s Law, we have been feeding in the park because that’s where our homeless friends are. If they’re moved elsewhere to be hungry, we’ll go there to share our food. As noted, the City has relented and said they will continue to allow us to feed where the hungry are as the City Council search for responses to the bigger problems that are the cause of hunger.

        We know too well that our little group cannot solve the problems of homelessness or hunger. But we can alleviate for a little while the pangs of hunger for a few hundred people in that park when we show up each and every Sunday.

  • Me

    Note to self: never move to North Carolina.
    I can’t believe the people in Raleigh hate humanists so much that they care more about thwarting them than about helping the poor. It’s likely that these people in Raleigh behave this way because they are predominantly “Christian” and hate humanists. Well, they should really read their own religion’s teachings. Like about helping the poor. And loving your enemies. If there were a hell, which I don’t believe there is, surely the people who value hatred over helping the needy will be ones to go there.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      North Carolina has a lot of big progressive hotspots, but yeah, don’t move here except for the temperate weather and the fall leaves. It hasn’t been that long since the state actually voted to prevent government agencies from using scientific information to make decisions. And as Southern states go, this is a GOOD one.

      • jferris

        Yeah, well, didn’t they just vote to restrict voting? Don’t hold your breath on that “vote to prevent government agencies from using scientific information to make decisions” thing.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          The state legislature did that. They actually decided to make it illegal for agencies to use scientific data to determine the rates of beach erosion and sea level increase. This was to help developers keep property values high, screw the defrauded buyers. Corruption at its best.

          *edit: added in the part about sea levels.

    • Monika Jankun-Kelly

      Don’t the comments on this post, and the articles linked to from the post, show that all charities, regardless of religious affiliation, were affected? I think Human Beans was not singled out for being humanist, despite the very misleading title of this post. At first glance, I just assumed they were, because there are Christians who discriminate and legislate against us, but that does not appear to be what happened in this case.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    The article indicates that multiple groups were affected. Even the quote is from a ministry. The title overwhelmingly indicates that a Humanist group was being discriminated against. It’s a terrible title.

    • Monika Jankun-Kelly

      Indeed. Very misleading title and post too, if you don’t follow and read all the links. I had to read the comments to figure out if the humanist group was being singled out, or all charitable groups were affected. I expect better from The Friendly Atheist.

  • SabsDkPrncs

    I would say this is a horrible ordinance, because it’s aimed at charities helping the poor. I don’t see any reason for it beyond giving the police another way to punish people for being poor.

    • guest

      so you’d be fine with dozens of homeless people gathering every weekend for handouts in the park you take your kids too? Really?


      They need to find a better location to do this kind of work. Or does tradition trump law now because it wasn’t just a religious group that was told to go away? Don’t be a hypocrite.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        I find the implication- that some members of the public should be prohibited from using a public park, horrific.

        You know where else homeless people tend to hang out? The Public Library.

      • Travis Taylor

        I find that people like you that have had privilege all their life tend to want to withhold things from others because they do not fit into the pretty little box you call life. You despise the homeless but a great majority of them have served this country in the United States Military, or some other type of public service. Since it was a public park they should have the same amount of rights as your privileged self does. You believe the propaganda of the news that all homeless are criminals. Might it be that you are the criminal for trying to take away someone else’s rights?

      • eric

        They DID find a better location: the parking lot of Salvation Army center, which is very likely to service the homeless anyway.
        Now, are you going to complain about how horrible it is that you can’t take your kid to a Salvation Army distribution center without running into poor people (gasp! horror!)

      • SabsDkPrncs

        I’m perfectly happy to share public parks with other members of the public. Gathering to give away food doesn’t bother me any more than a family reunion in a park, or a birthday party in a park, or AYSO soccer tournaments that take up the whole park for whole weekends. I don’t see any reason why you should believe I’m a hypocrite. What does bother me is police giving citations to people handing food to others.

      • Chris

        “so you’d be fine with dozens of homeless people gathering every weekend for handouts in the park you take your kids too? Really?”

        Yes, I would. And I very well might volunteer myself and my kids to help with the handing out.

  • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

    Guess that people want the homeless to just go away so they cannot see them. Its the easiest way to deal with an issue, just don’t see the problem and then you can never say its there.

    What really irks me is that they try defend citing that someone could sue the city if they hurt themselves in a park, does that mean if I am walking in the park on a Sunday and hurt myself I can sue? I believe that shows how stupid this ordinance really is.

  • Mick

    All groups removed or just those without a permit?

  • Paul Reed

    “Hopefully this can come to a 0 Comments”

    • allein

      I think that was a typo showing the wrong text for the link. The link itself on those words goes to a comment thread (which currently has 9 comments) on the newsobserver.com site. I’m assuming the link was supposed to go to the url for the post and not the comments.

  • Sk3ptec

    I often say that Atheists and Christians, although they hold different views on many things, are actually allies when it comes to more pressing and immediate topics like government oppression and eroding freedom. This is a prime example.

    • guest

      yes, those darn laws are always getting in the way of just doing what you want without regard to others or the law. Pure oppression there,huh? Screw all those kids and families that want to enjoy the park. They need to make way for the dozens of homeless that are sleeping, urinating and defecating in the park and harassing people for handouts. There couldn’t possibly be a better place to do this type of work. It has to be done in a public park or it can’t be done at all.

      Stupid laws.

      • Mark Hurley

        Wow! If that was satire, it was poorly dressed, man. If you meant that, then… shit, I am glad I don’t have to walk around in your ornery skin all day. That was just about the least charitable thing I will hear all month, and I watch Fox News for giggles.

      • David Kopp

        Just because a law exists doesn’t mean that it’s just, or that the government should have that power.

        An $800 permit that nobody will approve is a ban on homeless people masquerading as something reasonable.

  • stojadinovicp

    Can they do it on private property? I find it hard to believe that no one would donate their yard or parking lot for such a cause? :(

  • Amanda

    I work with the groups that go out there and none of them identify specifically as atheist. Not to my knowledge anyway. I work in a non-specified-religion group. We’re just not a church group. We just go out there and try to do good in the community. It doesn’t mean we’re not individually christian nor does it mean we are specifically atheist. I think that that is a serious error in the article that needs to be addrssed.

  • Poppy Potts

    regular groups like the salvation army have kitchens subject to inspections, Humanists do not, they could be feeding poison for all we know and for them to set up shop in the salvation armys parking lot was just plain trespassing.