SAN JOSE – Kim Rennels planned to skip another meal on Sunday, but the 54-year-old homeless woman got lucky visiting St. James Park.
The San Jose chapter of Food Not Bombs put out a selection of free vegan foods that day as the hungry came by to fill their stomachs with rice, summer vegetable stew, salad wraps, and bread pudding.
Rennels said she felt better after eating, but hunger isn’t her only struggle. After ending up in jail since childhood and struggling with drug and alcohol use, she tries to get clean.
“You get used to it after a while,” she said. “It’s like someone just takes your hand and makes you decide whether you want to leave or not.”
Groups like Food Not Bombs say feeding the homeless in public parks is a gift of compassion, but San Jose city officials and some nonprofits want the practice to end for health and safety reasons. As the city tries to revive St. James Park, some also argue that the feedings are adding to a landfill in the area and preventing the homeless from getting the services they need.
However, activists see plans to combat mass dieting as an attempt to evict the homeless from public spaces. They don’t plan to stop feeding the homeless in parks anytime soon.
“I think it’s important to recognize that the homeless, like other bourgeois people, are like everyone else. They enjoy the same things. They have the same desires and interests. It’s just that we have a weak economy and people are being forced into the streets, ”said Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs.
City officials told homeless advocates and church groups in June that they intend to enforce a city ordinance banning the distribution of unacceptable food in parking lots.
After meeting with churches and nonprofits, city spokeswoman Cheryl Wessling said officials had not yet decided when enforcement would begin. Stakeholders expected the city to start issuing citations this month.
“It is clear that the goals of feeding those in need and keeping the park safe and clean for everyone do not have to be mutually exclusive. Both can be achieved through a collaborative spirit, ”she said.
There are four kitchens that serve meals near the park and four more within two miles, all of which offer additional services, she said. City officials said they would like to see churches support these facilities by, for example, bringing disabled homeless people into the kitchen.
Karen Gillette, who works at Trinity Cathedral across from St. James Park, said the church wants to help the homeless get services and they hope the city will keep them safe and staffed.
“It’s the old saying and maybe people don’t agree,” said Gillette. “You can give a person a fish or teach them to fish. It makes sense to me. “
Edita Cruz, executive director of Martha’s Kitchen – a soup kitchen that has fed the hungry in San Jose since the 1980s – said the city should invest in a center for the homeless so that nonprofits can bring in food and case managers.
However, feeding the homeless in the park does not give them any incentive to go anywhere else.
“The park is a public place. It should be open to and enjoyed by everyone. Unfortunately, some of the homeless who stay there give the rest of the homeless a bad name for engaging in illegal activities. They are not keeping the park clean or safe on this matter, ”she said.
Parks should be open to everyone, including the homeless, Cruz said, but people there should behave and keep the area clean for others.
“Even if you are a well-dressed businessman, if you smoke drugs there, it is not for you,” she said.
According to an Applied Survey Research census and poll, there were 4,350 homeless people in San Jose this year, up 7 percent from 2015. Researchers conducted the survey on Jan. 24-25.
About 33 percent of the homeless in San Jose slept outdoors on the streets, in parks, or in camps. About 43 percent remained in emergency, transitional or other emergency shelters. The rest lived at night in a building or indoor area that is not normally used for sleeping, in a motel or hotel, or in a vehicle.
Some homeless people visiting the park say the feedings are helping there and the city shouldn’t take action against them.
Gerardo Mercado was sitting in a Target shopping cart, his leg propped up by crutches, blankets, and a pink teddy bear.
He became homeless in 2000 after losing his job and some bad decisions. Dealt with a broken ankle, Mercado said he has also attended nonprofits but sometimes feels judged by some employees.
“If people are ready to come together and make sure the food is healthy and there is no harm, then why not?” He said. “We all have the right to eat something healthy.”