Columbus Water Works, at the urging of Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, has put those who feed the homeless and needy in a public park just north of downtown on notice that the feedings in that area must stop by the end of the month.
The city is trying to steer those who feed the needy -- many of them faith-based organizations -- to agencies set up to handle the homeless and needy population in Columbus. Those services to which the city wants to direct the needy include health care, mental evaluations and possible housing solutions, according to those involved in the effort. Columbus currently has an allotment of housing vouchers for the chronic homeless from the federal government and Home for Good, and other agencies are trying to identify those who might qualify.
"This is an effort to make sure that those in our community are feeding in places that are set up to provide broader services," Tomlinson said last week.
The park at 18th Street, between Second Avenue and Veterans Parkway, is owned and operated by Columbus Water Works and houses the city's combined sewer overflow system. For the last six or more years, it has been used primarily by the homeless and is a place individuals and groups gather to feed the less fortunate.
"We are doing this at the mayor's request," said Columbus Water Works President Steve Davis. "We are trying to direct those serving the hungry people to go to facilities that are set up for that. It is more than food. They can get other help."
Water Works employees have to maintain the park, and that includes picking up the litter left behind. "There is a lot of debris and we are not set up for that kind of activity," Davis said. "We are there to run and maintain a (Combined Sewer Overflow) facility."
The park will remain open, Davis said.
Neil Richardson, executive director of Chattahoochee Valley Jail Ministries, helps operate SafeHouse, a homeless ministry in Rose Hill United Methodist Church at 2101 Hamilton Road.
"Right now, we are enabling homelessness, instead of ending it," Richardson said. "There are six to 11 meals served by well-intentioned people on the streets of Columbus every day. We are not feeding the hungry, we're feeding the full."
Jessie Brown said he is a homeless man who stays in local shelters, but he has recently been sleeping in the water treatment plant park.
"This park is a safe haven," Brown said on Saturday. "It is more than a feeding ground. I sleep in here, and others do, too. We sleep in here because we feel safe because there is always traffic."
There is also always food available, especially on Saturdays.
The hope is that those who are currently feeding the needy will relocate their efforts into organizations such as Valley Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army and SafeHouse, said Christie Bevis, director of Home for Good, an organization that grew out of the city's task force to address and eliminate homelessness,
"People who do not understand this think we are trying to shut down public feedings; and that is not what we are doing," Bevis said. "We are trying to enhance communitywide coordination to get people off the streets and into housing."
SafeHouse is three blocks east of the park, Salvation Army is adjacent to the park and the Valley Rescue Mission is about a half-mile north of the park. SafeHouse serves breakfast and lunch every day; Valley Rescue Mission serves dinner Monday through Friday and a bag lunch on the weekends; and the Salvation Army serves dinner every day.
Richardson has offered the SafeHouse kitchen to any organization wanting to provide meals for the needy.
"The only way to end homelessness is to consolidate the services to ensure the other needs are met," Richardson said.
He tells the story of a man who has been in and out of the SafeHouse ministry.
"I asked him one day, why he stayed on the streets," Richardson said. "He said between all the churches, his needs were met. He said they gave him food and clothes. He told me every penny he hustles goes to dope and a woman for that night. That is what this is all about.
"He spent two years on the street that he did not need to. And he did it because we made it easy for him."
Billy Henderson runs Billy Bob's Outreach Center and has been feeding the needy in the Water Works park for "six or seven years." He started about eight years ago at a pavilion along the Chattahoochee River near 23rd Street.
Henderson got the notice on July 4 that people will no longer be able to use the park to feed the homeless and needy after July 31. Early last week, he said he plans to defy that order. Now, after meeting with Richardson and looking at the SafeHouse ministry, which also includes two shelters and about 50 beds, he is willing to work through the process.
"I have calmed down a little and want to see how this works," Henderson said on Saturday as he was handing out more than 80 snack bags to people in the park. "I am praying for direction from God."
Henderson runs one of the largest feeding organizations in Columbus. He feeds out of the park at 18th Street on a regular basis and has been doing so for almost seven years.
He purchases more than 40,000 pounds of food from Feed the Valley, a local food bank. "And that doesn't count what people give to me," Henderson said.
Ben Whittaker has been working with Billy Bob Ministries for more than four years and he is willing to give the change a chance to work.
"On paper, this sounds like it is great," he said. "But we know there are always underlying issues. This will be a win-win if it takes some of the needy off the streets and it gets them the resources to do greater good."
It is people like Henderson the city wants to move into the agencies.
"I know he has a passion for what he is doing," Tomlinson said. "We have met with him and we will continue to meet with him."
Earlier this year, Home for Good surveyed the city's homeless population. That survey revealed that on Jan. 26, 149 people slept unsheltered and another 135 slept in local shelters. Of that number, 53 were identified as chronic homeless and 22 were veterans. Most people working with the city's homeless population say that statistic is lower than the actual number, but it is a good baseline.
Richardson praises the efforts Tomlinson, the city and Home for Good are making to address the issues.
"The mayor is taking the lead on this," he said. "Most politicians want to stay away from an issue like this. This mayor has realized the only way to end homelessness is to consolidate services, including the feeding."