RALEIGH — Ten months after charities say they were threatened with arrest for handing out food in downtown’s Moore Square, the city will open an indoor food distribution center Saturday.
Born out of last year’s arrest controversy, the Oak City Outreach Center is housed in a windowless warehouse at 2151/2 S. Person St., behind the old Salvation Army building. The plastic tables and concrete floors are a far cry from downtown’s swanky restaurants.
But it’s just a few steps from the square where Raleigh’s homeless and indigent often congregate. The building has air conditioning and clean bathrooms. And it’s funded by the same city government that charities had accused of trying to push the less fortunate out of downtown.
“This is probably more than we could have expected,” said David Legarth of Brown Bag Ministry, a nonprofit that hands out hundreds of sack lunches downtown every Saturday.
“I think it’s definitely going to be a benefit for us when it’s raining and cold. I think it’s a benefit for the people that we serve when they need to wash their hands or go to the bathroom.”
The center’s opening Saturday comes after months of often heated meetings between city officials and nonprofit leaders. The debate over where to allow food handouts began last August, when police suddenly began enforcing an obscure rule that requires $800 permits to distribute food in city parks.
City officials said the enforcement came in response to numerous complaints of litter and crime in Moore Square. But charities such as Love Wins Ministries said the crackdown involved police officers who told them to take the food elsewhere or face arrest.
Within days, the scandal dubbed “Biscuitgate” made national news, and angry speakers packed a three-hour public hearing at City Hall. City Council members put the permit rules on hold and launched a series of community meetings to find a solution.
Common ground seemed elusive during the first meetings. Frustrated by big crowds and overflowing trash cans, downtown business owners and city officials wanted charities to do their work elsewhere. But the nonprofits said a move would make it harder to serve the needy.
In October, city staffers proposed the Salvation Army site. Raleigh bought the property to eventually sell to a developer, but it was likely to sit vacant for several years first. With city leaders willing to spend $110,000 to spruce up the warehouse, the plan drew no objections.
Managed by volunteers
While the city will provide off-duty police officers to keep the new center secure, Catholic Charities has a contract to manage the facility with a part-time coordinator and a long list of volunteers. The organization is asking charities to sign up for a time slot, so the center has enough food for three meals a day on Saturdays and Sundays. Catholic Charities can take drop-off donations, and it can send leftovers to other “care points” serving the homeless outside downtown.
Shana Overdorf, director of the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness, said she hopes the center will become a community gathering space. It’ll be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends, with drinks and snacks available all day. Volunteers have already started to hang art to make the warehouse more attractive.
“We want to make it as homey as possible,” Overdorf said.
The building can fit 150 people at a time, with room for more at picnic tables outside. The outdoor space is key because some homeless people aren’t comfortable going indoors. And it’s enough space for diverse charities to fulfill their missions – whether it’s an evangelical church group or a secular organization.
“We hope to accommodate the culture of each group that comes here,” said Rick Miller-Haraway, regional director for Catholic Charities.
Nearly all the charities offering food downtown are willing to move to the center, Overdorf said. Carmen Zepp of Human Beans Together said her group will be there on Saturday. But while she’s hopeful the center will offer a better environment than Moore Square, she worries some might be intimidated by the police presence.
“I hope that doesn’t keep people who are hungry away,” Zepp said. “If this doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to the park.”
City officials say the permit requirement still won’t be enforced after Saturday, meaning no arrest threats for any handouts in the park.
Overdorf said volunteers staffing the center will reach out to any charities they notice in Moore Square. “If we see people in the park, we’re going to invite them to come over here,” she said.
Miller-Haraway said his group will be seeking feedback from the charities to meet their needs. “We’ll get their input into what’s working well,” he said.
‘Only the beginning’
While Saturday’s launch represents a big step away from last year’s controversy, the location behind the Salvation Army building isn’t permanent. The entire property could get razed in three to five years when the city sells to a developer.
The Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness will continue to work with the city and county on a long-term plan; Raleigh is supporting the nonprofit with a $50,000 grant to cover Overdorf’s salary. And the city budget – approved earlier this week – includes $60,000 for the Homeless Support Circles operated by Catholic Charities, which helps house homeless families.
“Our community is really coming together to address this issue, and this is only the beginning,” Overdorf said.