Mayor Baraka: Feed the hungry? Absolutely, but safely. | Opinion

Published: Dec. 15, 2021

By Ras J. Baraka

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka says that encouraging the homeless to congregate for food in the Penn Station area, where there are no transitional services, only contributes to their hand-to-mouth existence. Above, the homeless sleep under a bridge outside Penn Station. 

There has been recent criticism of Newark’s policy requiring permits from the well-meaning groups who bring food to the homeless around Penn Station.

This has been presented as insensitive to the needs of our residents without addresses but, in fact, it is done with their safety, health and welfare in mind.

Our required permit for food distribution in public places is designed to protect the consumers, whether they be at a street fair, a Heritage Day, or at Peter Francisco Park across from Penn Station where the homeless congregate.

For health reasons, we need to be able to trace the source of food should people get sick so we can take appropriate measures. We have learned from COVID-19 how important this type of contact tracing can be.

We are also concerned that the centralized efforts of these groups around Penn Station keep our homeless population from exploring the resources we offer throughout the city.

There are 23 homeless shelters and 55 food pantries and soup kitchens in Newark, and we are encouraging these groups to connect, coordinate and partner with these government, goodwill and faith-based entities. Their commendable efforts to feed our homeless should be in places where shelter, social services and mental health outreach are readily available. The area around Penn Station does not provide such “one-stop” opportunities.

We also consider these neighborhood settings to also be far safer for our unsheltered population. The area around Penn Station is congested with car and bus traffic and has proven to be dangerous for people who have mental and physical health problems.

We believe this holistic neighborhood approach is a better path to transition these unsheltered people into permanent housing. Encouraging them to congregate for food in the Penn Station area, where no such transitional services, only contributes to their hand-to-mouth existence.

Our record on caring for the homeless is commendable. Could we do better? Yes, and we will keep trying until we eradicate homelessness. But any news concerning Newark’s handling of our homeless population is incomplete without mentioning these efforts:

* The city last year established an emergency shelter called “Newark Hope Village,” which allows the most vulnerable people to stay as long as 90 days and find the pathways to mental health, drug treatment and social services available to them.

* Nearly one year ago, the city broke ground on converting the Miller Street Elementary School into a 166-bed transitional facility for men, women and families, complete with social and health services.

* Our “Making Housing Homes Challenge” is inviting developers to create 200 transitional and permanent housing units to serve our homeless.

* During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic we housed and fed nearly 2,000 men, women and families to minimize the spread of the disease among them. Because of this action, their rate of infection was among the lowest of any group in the city.

Creating homes and providing services for our fellow residents without addresses is a proven top priority of my administration. Here in Newark, we meet these challenges with compassion, sensitivity and unbridled efforts to preserve the dignity of people who have been oppressed by poverty, become unemployed, or have suffered from addiction or mental illness. Any words to the contrary are disingenuous and do not illustrate the complete picture.

Ras Baraka is the mayor of the city of Newark.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-16 03:23:19 -0800