On Sunday, a Missouri street church that serves hot meals to the homeless was honored with a front-page feature in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. On Monday, city health department officials took notice and told the group to immediately cease handing out food.
For over a year, Churches on the Streets has served St. Louis’ homeless population. On Monday nights, dozens of the city’s more than 1,300 homeless people convene to share a hot meal and listen to a sermon from Edward “Pastor Paul” Gonnella, 50, whose own previous struggles with crack and prison give him credibility with those attendees facing similar issues.
Unlike most congregations, Churches on the Streets has no building to call home. They meet, with the private owners’ permission, at the Cotton Belt Rail Depot. “You have to go where there is need,” Ralph Valdes, an organizer with the church, told the Post-Dispatch. “A lot of the people here don’t feel welcome in the churches, which is sad. So we try to put out the idea that you are accepted here, that there is hope.”
“We’re hoping to get them off the drugs, off the alcohol and get them lives,” another volunteer, Cindy Cooper, who spends most Mondays cooking for congregants, said. “When they don’t show up for a certain length of time, I call the morgue. It tears your heart out because you get so attached to these people.”
But on Monday, the St. Louis City Department of Health told Churches on the Streets that they must cease serving hot homemade meals because they lack a permit.
The group had previously believed they were in the clear because they were serving food on private property, but Pat Mahoney, a supervisor in the health department, explained that that isn’t the case. “They’re doing a good thing, they really are,” Mahoney said. “It’s because they’re serving the public. The moment you start inviting the public to attend, that’s when we get into it.”
Of course, as the Riverfront Times notes, it’s legal to tailgate or hold barbecues in St. Louis without a permit. But city health director Pam Walker says the two are not analogous. “If I want to cook and poison my own family and friends that’s OK, but when you’re open to the public that’s implying a certain standard of safety,” Walker said. “That’s the standard we have in place for all the homeless shelters in the city.”
Buying and distributing pre-packaged meals, rather than ones the group cooks itself, is allowed without a permit.
St. Louis is not the only city to crack down on groups seeking to provide food to the homeless. In places as disparate as Raleigh, Philadelphia, and Orlando, restrictions on feeding the homeless in public have been implemented. A similar measure is currently being considered in Los Angeles.