For years, a small restaurant in western Indiana served a free meal to customers every Thursday. Unsurprisingly, it was a big hit, especially among those who struggle to regularly afford a hot meal. And the number of people needing assistance has “exploded” recently; the number of people served at soup kitchens has nearly doubled in the past year, as the Lafayette Journal and Courier noted in its investigation.
But Buttery Shelf Eatery served, instead of serves, free meals because of persistent complaints from some nearby businesses who did not appreciate the presence of poor people in the area and forced the restaurant to end its free lunches.
Despite the large crowd that showed up to Buttery Shelf Eatery — up to 70 people at a time — there have been relatively few incidents between patrons and no one has been arrested or even had to file a police report.
Ravallette, a volunteer who used to receive free lunches and now helps hand them out, liked the sense of community at the gatherings. “What I liked most about it is that a lot of times, when you go into a public place, you don’t see a representative segment of the community.”
Leading the charge against Buttery Shelf Eatery is Jerry Kalal, a former marine who opened K. Dee’s Coffee and Roasting Co. in 2007 and felt that the free lunches were scaring away customers. He estimated he lost between $500-$800 in weekly sales as a result.
Kalal complained to Buttery Shelf owner Cherrie Buckley, telling her, “You do this little soup kitchen, but you’re closing down all the other businesses.”
Buckley refused as long as she could. Serving the needy and homeless has been an important value in her life for decades, opening a food and clothes pantry for the needy back in 1995.
But Kilal was persistent. He regularly contacted the police to complain about Buttery Shelf patrons, but his claims were deemed specious. Others in the area filed complaints as well. In one instance, someone told police that a couple dozen people were doing drugs behind Buttery Shelf. Unknown to the caller, however, was that police already had an officer watching on the scene who noted that the people “were just standing there waiting for the place to open.”
The most serious violation police ever encountered was patrons blocking traffic, due to the long line to receive a meal.
Finally, after enduring what one supporter described as “bullying” for many months, Buckley decided she had to end the free lunch program.
This story — a mensch (or group of mensches) serves the needy, only to be shut down by the local government or nearby businesses that didn’t want the presence of homeless people — has played out in countless communities. In Los Angeles, the city council is considering a proposal to ban distributing food to homeless people in public because of complaints from neighbors. In Raleigh, a charity that for years had served meals to the needy was threatened with arrest if they continued. In Orlando, police arrested people who violated a city ordinance by feeding the homeless in public.
The problem boils down to the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. Nobody wants homeless people to starve, but many segments of society want them to be taken care of elsewhere. Instead of considering poor people a valued part of the community, they’re a “problem” that should be dealt with somewhere out of sight. Of course, everywhere is somebody’s backyard, and so local governments like Columbia end up passing proposals to exile its homeless population as far away from downtown as possible.
For her part, Buckley is distraught over having to cease her bakery’s outreach to the poor. She recently posted on its Facebook page: “We appreciate your support. But it is what it is and most people will not change how they feel. We too hope that one day we will be able to feed the community again.”
(HT: Former ThinkProgress intern Kirsten Gibson.)