New Portland Rules Could Abolish Free Hot Soup for Homeless People in Director Park

Parks officials say they don’t want to end the food handouts—just make sure they follow rules.

Director Park. (Alejandro Rdguez)

New regulations from Portland city officials could effectively cancel a volunteer program that hands out hot meals to homeless people on weeknights in Director Park.

Last week, officials from Portland Parks & Recreation began handing out flyers informing social-service groups that without a city permit they would no longer be able to operate in Director Park. Those organizations include Free Hot Soup, a group of volunteers who provide hot food for homeless people in downtown five nights a week.

The new permits would only allow one social service to occur each week in any Portland park. The new requirements would also require volunteer organizations to obtain insurance, get other permits like food handlers cards and provide amenities like dumpsters and security.

Because of the way Free Hot Soup operates, without hierarchical leadership, its volunteers say these new regulations will put an end to the service that's been in operation for six years.

"We're simply folks who are volunteering who are providing, sharing foods with people who don't have food security and it's something the government's not doing," said Mohamed Osman, who has been volunteering with Free Hot Soup for the last three years.

Parks officials say they don't want to end the food handouts—just make sure they follow rules.

"They've been operating without permits along with several other valuable social services providers but that doesn't mean they've been operating without the need for a permit," said Mark Ross, a Portland Parks & Recreation spokesman.

Requirements for social-service organizations to obtain permits to feed the homeless in public parks have faced legal challenges elsewhere.

In 2018 the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. chapter of Food Not Bombs sued the city after it similarly tried to require permits to serve food to the homeless. A judge ruled in that case that providing food for the homeless is protected under the First Amendment as it is "expressive conduct."

Volunteers with Free Hot Soup say they are ready to challenge the city of Portland if PPR continues to move forward with these new regulations.

Update, 3 pm: City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees parks, says in a statement that he's "committed to helping everyone who's providing social services in our parks continue to do so." His statement indicates, however, that Portland Parks & Recreation will move forward with permit requirements.

The permit is free, Fish says, and contends that regulation will help park rangers point people to social services.

"There are a variety of downtown park spaces that are a good fit for meals," Fish says, "and a single service provider will still be able to provide convenient, accessible, nightly meal service in the downtown core in multiple locations."

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