LOS ANGELES (AP) — A group of downtown clergy members has taken the unusual step of publicly urging other religious organizations to stop feeding homeless people on the streets of Skid Row, saying the effort is well meaning but misguided.
The Downtown Clergy Council, which comprises faith-based leaders from a variety of churches, synagogues and homeless ministries, released a position paper on the longstanding issue earlier this month as a way to raise public awareness that giving away food from the backs of trucks and vans to the down-and-out is not as helpful as it would seem.
Much of the food and wrappings end up in the gutter, creating a trash and vermin problem, while three nearby missions serve 8,000 free meals a day.
On top of that, feeding people on the street takes away the incentive for people to go into the missions, where they can also find everything from toilets to addiction recovery services to help them get off the street.
"They're enabling people to stay in the streets," said Kevin Haah, pastor of New City Church of LA who is president of the council. "It actually backfires in many ways."
A town hall community meeting is planned for Friday to discuss how to resolve the problem.
The issue has long made Skid Row homeless-service providers grit their teeth. Many religious and charitable organizations come to the 50-block area of downtown Los Angeles on a compassionate mission to aid the nation's densest concentration of homeless people, most of whom are substance abusers or mentally ill.
But much of the clothing ends up used as toilet paper and discarded, while other goods are sold for drug and alcohol money, the council said.
The clergy members are instead recommending that groups give away bottled water, because people will drink the water and recycle the bottles, as well as hygiene kits, containing items such as soap and toothpaste, which tend to be used rather than dumped. They can also work with missions to decide how to best direct their efforts, they said.
Skid Row community activist Jeff Page, known as General Jeff, said he's not in favor of stopping food giveaways altogether but regulating it. Giveaways could be centered in one location and groups should be made to collect the trash and register with the police department or other agency, he said.
He cited one instance where people were getting ill from donated food, which was later found to have expired.
"These are random organizations. There's no identification on their clothing, or their vans or anything," he said. "We need to hold them accountable in case of food poisoning or trash."
Haah noted that the move to stop the charitable efforts is "counterintuitive" and has left some people surprised, but he added that most people understand when they see the reasoning behind it.
"We are not saying that you should not come to Skid Row to help. We are saying you should help in ways that truly help them," he said.