A new lawsuit claims Portland Parks & Recreation created unconstitutional restrictions for the volunteers who routinely gather in a city square to distribute free food to the homeless.
Parks & Rec, however, is in no rush to begin enforcing its Social Service Permit, which plaintiffs say they were told would start on Sunday, Dec. 1.
Free Hot Soup convened at Director Park, 815 S.W. Park Ave., for the first time since then on Dec. 2. At the downtown scene: a dozen helping hands, mouthfuls of turkey, pasta salad, veggies, chicken noodle soup and pie — and about 150 hungry eaters. No permit, no problem.
"We can't cook for ourselves, you know," said one participant, a man who declined to give his real name, saying he was recently incarcerated and is now trying to get a tent. "It's a blessing."
Standing farther down in the line for food was David Bailey, who experienced homelessness for six years. He now lives in public housing, but has no income due to his medical issues. Walking with a cane, he can't always make it to the Portland Rescue Mission, where the cafeteria is cramped and the food, he says, isn't as tasty.
"Why can't we have our soup?" he asked. "It's just a policy of prejudice."
Founded about five years ago, Free Hot Soup isn't a registered charity or formal government program. A core group of roughly 150 volunteers coordinate the meals through a Facebook group that has 2,200 members. There is no set menu, but volunteers bring their own food and rely on donations from local businesses.
Organizers say they were shocked to learn that a new Parks & Rec policy would require them to obtain food handler licenses and pricey event insurance in order to operate.
On Nov. 29, nonprofit law firm Oregon Justice Resource Center filed an 11-page lawsuit in Multnomah County Court, asking a judge to block the rules on the grounds that they're an unconstitutional breach of the volunteers' First Amendment right to freely assemble.
It's also alleged to be an unconstitutional breach of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.
"It's very apparent they're only targeting the people who serve in Director Park," said Jo Foraker, a gleaner for Help 4 Houseless, and one of the 12 plaintiffs against the city. "They're trying to cover their butts."
Itâ€™s the first Free Hot Soup in Portland since Parks & Recâ€™s social service permit rule was set to take effect in Director Park. The volunteers donâ€™t have a permit, and everything seems to be going smoothly pic.twitter.com/PgcaZMB5Dk— Zane Sparling (@PDXzane) December 3, 2019
The chief of staff for Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Parks Bureau, declined to comment, saying their office learned about the suit on social media. A spokeswoman for the parks bureau says the permit rule actually went into effect in October, but for now the emphasis remains on "education and outreach rather than enforcement."
"The City and organizations who use our parks have a shared responsibility," said the spokeswoman, Nicola Sysyn. "We are both accountable for the health and safety of our community's shared spaces, and we ask all those who use our parks to help make sure they are taken care of for the Portlanders who treasure them."
Court records indicate the suit has been filed but has not yet been served to defendants, including Fish and Parks Director Adena Long.
City Hall has argued the permits will ensure accountability and that everyone follows the same rules, but Free Hot Soup suspects the owners of swanky nearby businesses tipped the scales. Documents uncovered by Willamette Week pointed a finger at Travel Portland, whose employees reported feeling unsafe while working at the Visitor Center in Director Park.
In a written response to the Tribune, the nonprofit tourism agency said its complaints were directed at "bad street behavior" committed by a few people, and were not aimed at Free Hot Soup.
"Generally speaking, Travel Portland supports organizations that give help where it is needed in a safe manner that follows established protocols," said Jeff Miller, Travel Portland's president and CEO. "We have no comment on the new permitting system, but believe the city strives to create a fair system that is easy to navigate while organizing these types of outreach."
Plaintiff Austin Bennington says most of Travel Portland's problems occurred in the morning, not during the 6 p.m. meals provided each weeknight.
For him, serving the hungry is an unalloyed public good.
"It makes a difference," said Bennington. "You can tell that what you're doing is helping somebody, and that's not always easy to find."
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