News: Charities: Keep Out

Park board bars social services from Washington Park

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Jared M. Holder

Bob McGonagle says his church should be allowed to feed homeless people in Washington Park

Charities are no longer welcome to operate in Cincinnati parks. In April the Cincinnati Park Board quietly changed its policy, indefinitely suspending social service permits for all parks in the city.

"The park board refined its special-use permit policy regarding requests by charitable groups to use parks as distribution sites," says an e-mail to park staff from Jude Johnson, assistant to the director of the Parks Department. "The current policy is that the park board will not be issuing permits to individuals or organizations to disseminate food and/or clothing to the less fortunate in Washington Park."

When asked for a copy of the new policy, Johnson provided a copy of his e-mail.

While all parks are included, Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine was singled out because of its use as a staging area for food and clothing distribution for the homeless.

"The reason for the new policy is that city parks are not equipped or licensed to operate as a social service venue and these activities are creating adverse conditions, such as excessive litter and potential health issues surrounding the distribution of food," Johnson wrote. "Although the intentions behind these activities are good, they are at odds with our function, and the situation is having a negative impact on the park."

Give and run
If the problem is litter and health risks, including rat infestations, from overnight dumping of food and clothing by unknown sources, social-service agencies question why the policy restricts groups that don't operate that way, including the United Church of Christ in Camp Washington, which has served the homeless in Washington Park for years.

Like some others, the United Church of Christ has found a loophole in the new policy: set up shop just outside the park.

Already kicked out of the park for failing to obtain a permit, the United Church of Christ has the blessing of the City Gospel Mission to distribute meals from its property, just a block up from the park.

"I believe that at least once a week there should be a venue for us to be allowed to feed in the park," says Bob McGonagle, a United Church of Christ volunteer and former homeless person. "They know us. We've been doing this for five to six years."

Social services that have used the park argue that, after serving meals, they check for litter.

"We will go to the park at the end to make sure there's no trash," says United Church of Christ volunteer Michele White. "We don't want to give anyone any reason not to allow us down there."

While UCC and others use adjacent sidewalks to continue their missions, the Parks Department hopes to funnel groups that want to help through established organizations such as the Drop Inn Center.

"It's just a matter of saying that, 'We're a group that has food and clothing. Can we schedule time to feed the less fortunate to coordinate efforts?' " Johnson says.

Johnson, who helped draft the new policy, and two others from the Parks Department met in April with Pat Clifford, coordinator of the Drop Inn Center, to discuss the issue. Clifford said he thought the Parks Department was cracking down on groups and individuals not getting permits. While he sees no problem coordinating relief efforts, he wonders why groups that are equipped and apply for permits are being rejected.

"From what I remember from (the meeting), it's a burden for the parks for groups to come down and dump out clothing or a group without a permit who pass out plates and wrappers when there's no adequate notice or facilities to dispose garbage," Clifford says. "The question was would we be willing to take referrals for people who want to serve here, and that'd be fine.

"If we're talking about effective service to the poor, we're on board. But if it's about trying to move homeless or people who look different out of a public park, we're against it. We're for a public park being public."

'People aren't hungry'
Johnson, however, said there was never any need for social services to in the park in the first place.

"The truth is that people aren't hungry," he says. "The Drop Inn Center feeds them three times a day, and there are other organizations. They know where to get food."

The park board's change in policy serves no purpose, according to Georgine Getty, executive director for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

"The churches that are doing it right are willing to get the permits, clean up after themselves and they have relationships with folks down there," she says. "This across-the-board banning of it is punishing the people who do it right and not getting those who do it wrong."

For Getty and Clifford, dump-and-run donations at the park are an inhumane way to provide assistance and rarely help anyone. The resulting mess ruins the park for residents, Johnson says.

"Over-the-Rhine wants their park like Ault Park, and that's what the community wants," he says. "Everybody wants it cleaned up, but as inclusive as everybody's backyard."

The Parks Department has stepped up its effort to clean up the park by staffing it with two permanent workers and encouraging new programming.

"They won't receive a permit to just hand out food and clothing," Johnson says. "If they come in and say they'll have a concert or a festival — where it's going to be a full-blown festival with maybe face-painting, kids' games, things of that nature — we understand with those events you have give-away hot dogs or something like that. But the hot dogs or the hamburgers, that's not the main focus. The main focus is kids running around here, having a good time. Everybody feels safe." ©

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