‘It’s just food’: Activists want Dayton to repeal ordinance requiring permit to distribute food downtown

City says ordinance ensures people who distribute items in public spaces have a well thought out plan to make sure the activities are done in a responsible way.

Some local activists associated with a local nonprofit organization and a political group are calling on the city of Dayton to repeal a city ordinance that prohibits the distribution of food and other items in public spaces in downtown without a permit.

“We believe city ordinance 137.21 is a direct reflection of the criminalization of the unhoused as well as the criminalization of those who want to help,” said Paige Lee, board chair of Nourish Our Neighbors, which hosts free meal service events downtown. “Nourish Our Neighbors along with multiple other organizations are calling for the prompt repeal of ordinance 137.21.”

A city spokesperson said the law was passed in 2005 to ensure that well-intentioned groups coordinate food distribution activities so they do not lead to problems with safety and sanitation.

On Saturday, April 13, people associated with the Southwest Ohio Party for Socialism and Liberation handed out hamburgers, hotdogs, pasta salad and supplies to unhoused individuals at Cooper Park in downtown Dayton, said Samantha Stacy, an activist involved with the group.

Community members distributed about 100 meals and ran out of food, but Dayton police showed up when the group was packing up and said they are not allowed to feed strangers in that public space downtown, Stacy said.

Another group of volunteers planned to give out food at Courthouse Square on Sunday, April 14, but police were already there when they arrived, according to multiple people with knowledge of the event.

Police cruisers were parked in the area where the volunteers would set up and the group was unable to provide meal service, they said.

A week earlier, Dayton police arrested a 25-year-old man at Courthouse Square after city officials said he continued to hand out food after he and others were warned by officers to stop because it violated city code.

Food distribution law

Multiple community members who were at Courthouse Square on Sunday, April 7, said police arrested the man for giving a couple of burritos to an unhoused individual. They said this was outrageous.

Dayton city code says people are not allowed to distribute food, clothing or toiletries in public spaces in downtown without a city-issued permit. Violations of the ordinance are a fourth-degree misdemeanor.

The incident at Courthouse Square is being reviewed for potential criminal charges. Police said the man was put in handcuffs but was released after being told he would receive a court summons.

Dayton Mayor Jeffrey Mims Jr. said police officers were “extremely” polite during that encounter but one individual chose to willfully disobey officers’ directions after being told about the law during a discussion that lasted about 45 minutes.

“We will not condone that,” the mayor said.

Officers said they responded after receiving an anonymous complaint about the food distribution activities, according to body camera footage obtained by this newspaper. An officer in the body camera video says, “It’s all about just getting a permit, man — that’s all it is.”

The officer said, “When we have people calling and complaining, we have to act on that.”

A community member says in one of the videos that they were simply “sharing food with our friends.” Other people said they have participated in lots of food distribution events and they have never had a problem before.

Must move

The Party for Socialism and Liberation, Nourish Our Neighbors and other volunteer and community groups have been working to offer meal services in downtown every week, said Stacy.

Supporters of the Party for Socialism and Liberation hosted a regular meal service at Courthouse Square until last month, when Dayton police told them to go somewhere else or risk being cited, she said.

Stacy said they moved their meal service to Cooper Park, near the downtown Dayton Metro Library.

Stacy said she thinks city leadership is trying to further “gentrify” downtown and they do not want unhoused individuals to congregate at Courthouse Square.

Courthouse Square is being upgraded and “reactivated” and some community leaders have said they hope it will become a key gathering space downtown, like it was originally envisioned when it was built decades ago.

Stacy said Dayton should rescind its food distribution ordinance because it criminalizes poverty and helping the poor.

“We weren’t feeding strangers — we were communing with members of our own community we have come to know because of our mutual aid efforts,” she said.

Stacy said requiring a permit is unfair, especially since permit requirements are burdensome for grassroots organizations with limited resources.

Permit applicants are asked to spell out what arrangements they have made for restrooms, parking, security and crowd control.

City responds

A city spokesperson said the distribution law was passed to try to address concerns about unorganized and uncoordinated efforts to serve food that led to overflowing trash cans, littering and issues with restroom access.

The spokesperson said the ordinance seeks to ensure that people who distribute or sell items in public spaces have a well thought out plan to make sure the activities are done in a responsible way and do not disrupt other intended uses of public spaces.

The city said it has to ensure its public spaces are kept clean and safe for the entire community. Distributing food on private property downtown is not against city law.

Dayton Municipal Court says it has no records of anyone being criminally charged under the city’s distribution ordinance.

Lee, board chair of Nourish Our Neighbors, said community organizations should not have to pay $50 for a permit every time they want to help the unhoused.

The city’s permit application process requires a nonrefundable $50 fee, even if the applications are rejected. The city permits are good for six-hour time periods.

The city last year received one application to distribute food or other items after receiving zero applications in 2022, a spokesperson said.

Why downtown

Nourish Our Neighbors says food is a human right and it holds its feeding events at Courthouse Square because that is a public space where a large number of unhoused individuals congregate.

Lee said the city should be doing more to meet the basic needs of the unhoused who have been neglected instead of punishing groups that are trying to help fill service gaps.

Stacy said “mutual aid” efforts will continue, as long as the activists who are helping the unhoused and the people they serve remain safe.

Dayton City Commissioner Shenise Turner-Sloss at last week’s commission meeting said city leaders and administration have been discussing this matter and they continue to look into it.

Turner-Sloss said, “We can’t continue to follow inhumane trends or (try) to continue down the path of criminalizing homelessness. ... We are working towards becoming a human rights city.”

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