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2012 Year in Review: Food Handouts Create Controversy in Philadelphia

By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The free distribution of meals by charity groups to poor people has been commonplace along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for many years.  But just two months before the Barnes Foundation moved in, the city passed a regulation banning curbside feedings.

The move sparked immediate controversy.

The new law made it illegal to feed large groups of people outdoors on city parkland, including in popular feeding spots like Love Park and along the Ben Franklin Parkway (see news story).

Mayor Michael Nutter said the purpose of the ban was to keep the parks clean and protect the dignity of the homeless.

"This is really an issue about food safety and public safety and public health," he said.

But some opponents of the ban saw it as a move to hide the homeless and to clear the Parkway to make the Barnes Foundation's immediate neighborhood more palatable for its visitors.

"It's discrimination," said Rev. Brian Jenkins of Chosen 300 Ministries.  "It says that people that have, can eat in a certain place but people that have not, can't."

Others hoped it was a chance to move feedings indoors.

"I honestly believe they are trying to move the ball forward to ending homelessness," said Sister Mary Scullion, a longtime advocate for Philadelphia's homeless.

The law went into effect in June, but some religious groups refused to stop their food handouts. A group led by the Chosen 300 Ministries filed suit, claiming the ban was unconstitutional.

"The government can't interfere with the exercise of their religion," said attorney Paul Messing, representing the group.

The court temporarily blocked the ban and the city has agreed to work with homeless advocates.

The Mayor's Task Force on the Outdoor Serving of Food issued a report recommending that new indoor facilities be built to feed the homeless.  The parties have agreed to work together.

Mayor Nutter says that while the city supports the law, it is also committed to solving the underlying problem.

"We've made a commitment to end homelessness in Philadelphia," he said.  "We've made a comment to ensure Philadelphians are not hungry."

A trial on the lawsuit is expected in 2013.

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