Downtown Clergy Council discourages random street feeding
After serving dinner to the homeless community of downtown Long Beach, junior Jennifer Hines chats with Bill Taylor who stayed during worship, dinner, and prayer. | Lauralyn Koontz/THE CHIMES
The Downtown Clergy Council discouraged independent feeding of the Skid Row homeless population in their Aug. 12 position paper; some Biolans have sympathized with their concerns about feeding the homeless without further ministry.
The statement — titled “How to Make the Influence of the Service Community Stronger than the Influence of the Streets!” — criticized groups for going into Skid Row and feeding the homeless without an organized program or schedule.
“Though we appreciate the intentions, it is clear after speaking with many about the issues, that they are unaware of the fallout of this activity,” the position paper read.
The Clergy Council consists of the leaders of churches, missions and ministries that work in Skid Row and the immediate area, according to the Council’s website. Officers from the Los Angeles Police Department frequent the meetings to discuss the issues faced on Skid Row, said Herb Smith, the president of Los Angeles Mission and a Clergy Council member.
The LAPD has used Council meetings to speak to faith-based organizations about the difficulties of Skid Row; however, the group has begun to take on a more active role in policy and advocacy, according to Smith.
The Council discussed a possible law prohibiting street feeding
At one point, the Council discussed the idea of a law prohibiting random street feeding, but it was dismissed. There are laws against litter and loitering that would solve the problem if enforced, Smith said. Most of the Council members agreed that a law banning independent groups from feeding the homeless would be counter to the spirit of the group.
“The Council is not in favor of any kind of ordinance against street feeding. We are for education only. I don't want to see churches get fined for doing something they believe is helpful,” said Kevin Haah, the president of the Downtown Clergy Council and lead pastor of New City Church of Los Angeles, in an email.
The bigger problem of homelessness and how to help
Unfortunately, groups’ attempts at being helpful can do a lot of harm, according to the paper. The problem of homelessness and the unhealthy lifestyle that goes with it is far more complicated than receiving a meal, Smith said.
"Here [at the Union Rescue Mission] they can come in, shower, get new socks and shoes, visit the medical clinic, visit the dental clinic, visit the mental health clinic; they can receive the services that they need to turn their life around. Homelessness is a devastating thing. You don't solve it with a sandwich," said Andy Bales, another Council member and the CEO of Union Rescue Mission.
Handouts enable the homeless to sustain their lifestyle and never deal with drug and alcohol addictions, according to the position paper. It also stated that independent groups contribute to the major trash problem of Skid Row. To avoid these pitfalls, the Council urges people to work through the missions.
The Council gives advice to student ministries
Both the Los Angeles Mission and Union Rescue Mission have programs in need of individual volunteers and groups that allow for people to get face-to-face ministry time.
"The best way to help is for you and some representatives to come take a tour and find out what's going on,” Bales said. “And then think about what your talents and abilities are and where you'd like to plug them in.”
Working through a mission or agency can provide something independent groups cannot, according to Smith — consistency.
"[A] sense of regularity and dependability is, I think, one of the most important pieces. Whether you as a group can do it, or you use an organization that can continue that when you're not able to do it,” Smith said of groups interested in working in the inner city.
Biolans echo similar concerns
Junior Michelle Menzor is the director of Brown Bag Ministry — a Biola club that hands out lunches every Thursday at a church in downtown Long Beach and nearby low-income housing — and is involved in an unofficial group that ministers on Skid Row. Though Brown Bag does not partner with a local mission, they seek to provide more than a meal.
"Our goal is to talk to people and let them know that they are valued. We obviously bring them food, so physically help their needs, but we're also trying to show them Jesus with spiritually being there, and we try to be consistent so that they know that we care,” Menzor said.
Menzor has struggled with the viability of entirely food handout based groups, but is confident in the importance of the spiritual side.
"If you go down there with a purpose to talk to them, I feel like it has a better impact,” she said.
The position paper is not forbidding all non-mission work on Skid Row, said Doretha O’Quinn, vice provost of multi-ethnic and cross-cultural engagement.
"I think the statement makes an attempt to help those who would want to work independently of a missions organization,” she said. “Not to eliminate their independent service, but to give caution to some who are on Skid Row — not all."
The expertise of those within the local missions and organizations can be extremely helpful to outside groups, who may not have as much knowledge about how to solve the overall problem of homelessness, O’Quinn said. However, a church group or student group with the congregation to consistently do the work necessary to facilitate a good homeless ministry should also feel free to do so, she said.