Volunteer group Food Not Bombs has been dishing out free vegetarian meals to the homeless in downtown's Court Square Park nearly every Saturday for a decade. But two weeks ago, it seemed as though the group would be homeless, too.
In early April, Center City Commission (CCC) representatives told the group to move to another location. Jerome Rubin, vice president of operations for the CCC, said the park was infested with rats and the presence of food wasn't helping.
"The health department has been baiting the area, but they have also advised us that the baiting will not be effective if we do not reduce or remove the food source that is causing the infestation," Rubin said.
Rubin also maintained the group needed a $50-a-week permit to use the park and suggested they move their operation to Morris Park at Poplar and Manassas.
However, last week, the CCC got word that the rat problem was under control. A few Food Not Bombs volunteers subsequently met with Leslie Gower, vice president of marketing and communications for the CCC, and were told they could continue using the park as long as they paid the weekly permit fee.
"Weekly permits would cost $2,600 a year. There's no way these kids can afford that," said Mid-South Peace & Justice Center director Jacob Flowers. Food Not Bombs is a Peace & Justice Center program, but Food Not Bombs operates largely without a budget. All of the food served is donated from area grocery stores.
During the meeting, a Food Not Bombs volunteer pointed out that the Court Square guidelines state that "the CCC reserves the right to waive or reduce any ... fees for nonprofit groups performing a public service."
Since Food Not Bombs fits that category, the CCC then decided to waive the weekly fee for the permit.
"We applaud them for doing the right thing, but there are still factors that point to a larger issue," Flowers said. "We think this was part of a move by the CCC, along with the recently passed panhandling ordinance, to move poverty and homelessness out of sight and out of mind."
On Saturday, Food Not Bombs volunteers scoured the park picking up trash after serving food to the homeless. Volunteers maintain that they've always kept the park very clean.
Jason Smith of Food Not Bombs says he's happy the group isn't being forced out of the park.
"I feel really good about having permission to stay here, but I know there are still lots of people who don't want us to serve here," Smith said. "We can deal with their dirty looks and scowls."