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Mayor creates task force for outdoor homeless feeding ban, but questions remain

The Task Force on the Outdoor Serving of Food includes some of the policy's most vocal critics and aims to open a dialogue about its provisions.

A host of advocates, activists and churches gave moving speeches at City Council Thursday supporting Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell's call for Mayor Michael Nutter to nix his planned controversial ban on feeding the homeless in public.

Elementary students from a local charter school pleaded for its repeal. One man even sang his testimony.

The critics made some good points: The policy says only three people can be fed in city parks at once, but the mayor has previously assured that church groups and family picnics will not be affected regardless of their size. How can the policy be enforced without being discriminatory against the homeless demographic?

A crucial aspect of many forms of worship is the practice of charity and many groups don't have access to downtown indoor spaces in which to provide meals. How can the policy be enforced without restricting the exercise of religious freedom in Philadelphia?

The questions kept coming: How can the policy be enforced without compounding crises in public health, crime and tourism by compelling the hungry to eat from the trash and commit robberies and thefts to buy food? How can it be enforced without creating a "separate but equal" system similar to those of the pre-civil rights era?

One problem: Blackwell announced at the start of Council that she was holding the resolution, causing Council President Darrell Clarke to stem the tide of speakers about halfway through the list.

"We decided to hold it such that if we wanted to amend it, we could work out a compromise," Blackwell said by way of explanation. "In terms of the resolution, Council will agree to it, but that doesn't take it where we want to go because resolutions are non-binding."

She implied future opportunities to work out a compromise with the Nutter administration. "The goal is to keep the discussion open. All of it is on the table to be changed," she said, adding that she would be participating in additional hearings before the city Board of Health. "Should we need the opportunity for more input, it's there, and obviously the Council support is there if I wanted to amend the resolution if reality changes."

Reality indeed changed Friday when the mayor announced the formation of the Task Force on the Outdoor Serving of Food chaired by the commissioner of the city's Department of Behavioral Health and prominently featuring Blackwell as a member, along with representatives of many of the city's social services and some of the other advocacy groups that spoke against the ban Thursday.

The group aims to address many of the questions raised at Council. "This task force will create a dialogue to marshal our good will and resources, so that we can help vulnerable, hungry people of Philadelphia in more effective ways," Nutter said in a release.

More concretely, the task force will develop an educational and outreach strategy to encourage those who are hungry to eat indoors, according to the administration. It remains to be seen how much the administration is willing to compromise on the policy's provisions and if, by being brought at least partially into the fold of the policy's creation, the ban's vocal opponents will be in any way placated.