There's certainly no question about the rightness or nobility of the intentions. The problem lies in some of the unintended consequences.
The issue of feeding homeless people in the Columbus Water Works public park is one of those politically tricky things that put officials at risk of looking bad no matter what they do, even if -- especially if -- they do nothing.
For the last few years, homeless people have been the principal users of the park area where the Columbus Water Works houses its combined sewer overflow facility. Over that time, caring individuals and organizations, including religious organizations, have been going there to provide food for the needy.
Now the Water Works, at the request of Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, has said feeding the homeless in that park must be ended by the end of the month.
No, the Consolidated Government and the city's water utility have not suddenly developed a collective case of institutional callousness. Rather, they are trying to help coordinate food programs with larger-scale efforts to provide longer-term, perhaps even permanent, help for homeless people in Columbus.
Neil Richardson, who helps run a homeless ministry at Rose Hill United Methodist Church, as well as serving as executive director of Chattahoochee Valley Jail Ministries, could hardly be suspected of indifference toward those in need. But the various feeding programs, while no doubt providing short-term relief for some hungry people, are actually counterproductive: "Right now, we are enabling homelessness, instead of ending it 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."
Richardson shared an anecdote about one homeless man who got food and clothes from various homeless outreach programs, and hustled money for drugs and prostitutes: "He spent two years on the street that he did not need to. And he did it because we made it easy for him."
Certainly that doesn't describe all, or even most of the people who have been fed at the Water Works park. But it makes the point that more comprehensive kinds of help are necessary, and only through consolidated efforts can they be widely available. Things like health care, including mental health evaluation; clothing assistance; child care; vouchers and other housing/shelter options; and substance abuse intervention and treatment are just some of the services that must come into play. "The only way to end homelessness," Richardson said, "is to consolidate the services to ensure the other needs are met."
Home for Good director Christie Bevis said people who want to help should direct their energies toward SafeHouse, the Salvation Army, Valley Rescue Mission and other organizations working together to help the homeless.
It's not that the homeless don't need food. But food isn't the reason most of them are homeless.