Feeding the homeless in Newark requires a permit

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on November 07, 2016

On any given day in Newark, you can find someone giving out food to the homeless and the hungry around Penn Station.

It could be a group from a church, a mosque or a charitable organization, or other ordinary folk pulling up in cars and vans.

They know there's a need. More than 2,700 people, according to city officials, don't have a permanent place to stay.

But what these charitable people don't know is that they are carrying out their acts of kindness without the city's permission. An ordinance approved way back in 1966 requires anyone who distributes food, candy or chewing gum to get a $5 permit from the city's health officer.

The issue has been annoying to East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador, who has received complaints from residents and business owners about the homeless population. He said the law is on the books, but it hasn't been enforced, and many of these big-hearted groups should be told of the requirement.

"I find it ironic that, whenever we have a special event, street fair or festival, the vendors that handle food are required to come to the city and follow the guidelines," he said, "However, when a church or agency decides to feed the homeless, the guidelines are not followed.''

That's going to change, although there's no timetable set to get it done.

The city's Department of Health and Community Wellness said it is in the early stages of developing a permit process and updating the existing ordinance that impacts community contributions and food distribution to the homeless.

"We have shared concerns for the safety and quality of the food that is being provided, as well as the process by which it is delivered,'' said Denise Rodgers, director of the city's health department.

To address these concerns, Rodgers said, the city is considering plans that include setting up feeding locations in each ward; starting a marketing campaign to make the public aware of options for feeding the homeless; and developing a list of current food providers for groups to use when they're giving out food.

Amador talks about this a lot, saying there are city churches and organizations that already do a good job serving those in need. "People should be fed, but it has to be done with a sense of dignity,'' he said. "It's not fair to the homeless that they are being served food without any scrutiny whatsoever.''

When you think about it for a moment, it's actually not a bad idea to have oversight. It's all about safety for the homeless, who swarm to the small park behind Penn Station when food is offered. It did seem odd, though, to hear that good Samaritans are no different from food vendors.

Rasheed and Samaeerah Muhammad, a Newark couple who distributed paper bags filled with chicken parmigiana sandwiches, tangerines and cheese crackers on Sunday, were surprised to learn of the permit requirement.

"We're not making any money,'' said Samaeerah Muhammad. "We want to help people. It could be us out there. It could be our children. It could be our family member.''

The goal is to not stop or discourage anyone from feeding the less fortunate. It's only to look out for them, because there are people who may have bad intentions, said Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins.

"Somebody could come down and poison a bunch of people under the auspices of giving away food,'' she said. "Every good deed is not in this day and age, with all the hate we see going on.''

The people who are being fed understand the city's point — they're just not worried about being harmed. The food, they say, is quality and they're thankful to those who take the time to prepare it or purchase products that come in sealed packages.

"Any time you have enough heart to just give it out, you have enough heart to make it right,'' said Kevin Scott, a Newark man who is homeless. "I think the food is just as warm as the hands that reach out to give it to us.''

On nice days, hundreds gather behind the rail station at Peter Francisco Park, waiting for the regulars to pull up with breakfast, lunch and dinner. The busiest time is Saturday and Sunday, when many volunteers appear.

Abdel Baksh, a member of the NIA Masjid & Community Center in Newark, said his group comes twice a month, regardless of the weather, and consistently feeds 100 or more people each outing.

"No matter what,'' he said. "We are out here."

He said was he unaware of the necessity of a permit, but promised to follow up. Members of the New Jersey chapter of the New York Metro of Hope Worldwide, which also distributes food, said they would comply, too.

"We are men and women of God,'' said Victoria Mack, a member of the Christian organization. "We want to do the right thing. We wouldn't be out here doing this if we knew we needed a permit.''

Thanksgiving is just weeks away and a greater number of groups are likely to find their way to downtown Newark. Until the city finalizes it plans, the do-gooders will continue with their humanitarian ways. The city hasn't said what it will do in the meantime, if this unauthorized kindness goes on.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment