Dayton food handout law dates to 2005 fights over Cooper Park meals for homeless

City ordinance requires permit for food distribution downtown; charity groups are calling for repeal, saying it criminalizes feeding and helping the poor

A Dayton law that requires a permit to distribute food in public spaces downtown has been on the books for 19 years but has gotten fresh scrutiny after multiple run-ins between police and groups that feed the needy in the last couple of months.

The law, passed in 2005, put a stop to some meal service events in public spaces downtown after multiple residents complained that a public park was being turned into an outdoor cafeteria and hangout for the homeless, resulting in issues with trash, litter and nuisance activities like public urination and defecation.

Dayton officials then and now have said the law helps ensure that public spaces are kept clean and safe so they can be enjoyed by everyone.

But the ordinance is igniting controversy once again, and some local activists and grassroots organizations say it should be repealed because it seeks to “criminalize” charity.

“This ordinance does not offer any safety, only obstacles,” said Dayton resident Maggie Burk, a member of multiple local grassroots organizations. “We believe in collaboration and community — not criminalization. ... The city should work alongside us as we look for solutions for gaps in our system.”

History of distribution ordinance

In May 2005, the Dayton City Commission approved an ordinance that prohibits the distribution of food, clothing and toiletries in public spaces downtown without a city permit.

City code allows the city to reject permit applications for events if they did not have sufficient plans for addressing trash, safety, traffic, parking and restroom needs.

Applicants are required to pay a $50 fee that won’t be refunded even if their requests are rejected. Permits are good for six-hour periods.

The prior summer, in July 2004, some downtown residents raised a stink about free, bimonthly meal service events that were being held at Cooper Park, behind the downtown Dayton Metro Library.

Multiple people who lived in the Cooper Place condos, across the street from the park, said they were fed up with the trash, litter and unsanitary park conditions that followed food and clothing distribution events, which were hosted on the weekends by groups including Living Word Church in Vandalia and West Carrollton Assembly of God.

Some residents said the churches should move their meal service to sites that would not interfere with the cleanliness, appearance, safety and overall enjoyment of a public park.

Jim Dinneen, who was Dayton’s city manager then, said at the time that the ordinance ensured that event organizers had plans in place to avoid problems.

Rhine McLin, who was Dayton’s mayor in 2005, said the ordinance was supposed to help ensure that Dayton remains clean.

“Downtown has a different flavor than other places, and it’s important we provide some structure” for these kinds of events, she said.

Charities disappointed

Back in 2005, volunteers and members of the Living Word Church said the ordinance had burdensome requirements that they would not be able to meet.

The church said it was spending roughly $250 each month to provide the meals, and paying a $50 fee for every meal service was going to be prohibitively expensive.

After the ordinance took effect, Living Word Church moved its regular meal service to First Lutheran Church Dayton on West First Street, said Pat Murray, senior pastor with Living Word.

Although First Lutheran is downtown, people and groups are allowed to hand out food and other items on private property.

Living Word Church provided regular meal service at that location for years, but a couple of years ago it opened up the Dayton Dream Center in East Dayton, Murray said.

The Dream Center — located at 2720 E. Third St., 1.8 miles east of Cooper Park — serves meals multiple days every week. The center served more than 21,000 meals last year.

“We fed more people last year than we did the entire time we were out on the streets everywhere else,” Murray said.

Murray said he understood downtown residents’ concerns about the health and safety of their neighborhood. But he said he disagreed with some of their attitudes toward the people in need who were being fed.

Cooper Park was a good place to serve meals since it was close to the people in need, but Living Word was forced to adapt, he said.

“From our standpoint, we weren’t going to be denied,” he said. “We kept moving to where it was going to be permitted. ... I know what our mission is, and that’s to help everybody that we can.”

Calls for repeal of ordinance

Dayton’s distribution ordinance is back in the spotlight after multiple organizations have called on the city to repeal the measure.

Members and supporters of nonprofit groups and political organizations including Nourish Our Neighbors, the Libertarian Party of Montgomery County and the Southwest Ohio Party for Socialism and Liberation say the city law criminalizes feeding and helping the poor.

It was unclear whether the groups had pursued a partnership with a church or other downtown property owner.

Local activists said they were outraged after Dayton police arrested a man last month at Courthouse Square after he gave a burrito to a homeless individual. The man was part of a group of volunteers who were warned by officers that they were violating city law because they were handing out food items unlawfully without a permit.

Activists said police officers on multiple occasions since then have prevented them from distributing food in public spaces downtown or have shut down their meal service early, warning criminal charges were possible if they do not obtain permits.

A city spokesperson previously said the city law and permit process is meant to ensure that people who sell or distribute items downtown do it in a responsible manner.

At a recent Dayton City Commission meeting, Dayton resident Lee Cook said police have harassed Nourish Our Neighbors to try to get the nonprofit group to stop serving food downtown.

She said the group recently fed far fewer needy people during its downtown meal service events because it had to have money set aside for court costs and bail if volunteers were arrested and charged for serving food without a permit.

Burk, a member of the Dayton Tenant Union and Dayton United for Human Rights, said paying $50 for a permit for every meal service and distribution event is not reasonable, especially when there’s no guarantee the permit applications will be approved.

Samantha Stacy, a member of the Southwest Ohio Party for Socialism and Liberation, at a city commission meeting recently said, “The community and the city are becoming more and more aware of the draconian, poverty-criminalization laws and the pressure to rescind this ordinance will not go away.”

In response, Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein said she would provide the city commission with research and information that lays out the “historical context” of the city ordinance to help inform discussion about the law.


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