Warnings, fines to be issued for feeding large groups without permit
Community members helping the homeless in West Palm Beach claim a city ordinance is hurting their efforts to feed those in need.
This is because the ordinance requires a permit to feed groups of 25-plus people.
"I've been homeless now for seven months," Tony Merrit said. "I know most of these homeless people have been through tragic things in their life and some people can't really understand it."
Merrit said home for him is Curry Park, and he feels the public has a misconception of the homeless community.
"It's like the homeless people are the worst thing, the scum on the street, and some of them are great people," Merrit said. "I've been cleaning up that whole park for the last seven months."
Merrit said medical bills after a car accident put him on the streets.
"Everybody needs help, no matter what," Merrit said.
He said he's had food thanks to We Care About People Inc. but now the organization faces its own challenges.
"I received a warning telling me that I cannot serve the homeless," Canta Chestnut, the founder and president of We Care About People Inc., said. "I was breaking an ordinance that had been enacted March 23."
The grassroots organization prepares and packages meals but will need a permit to distribute the food to more than 25 people or they could face a $500 fine or 60-day jail time.
"I don't intend to stop, because I don't think you have the right to infringe on my First Amendment right to practice my religion," Chestnut said. "We are to take care of those less fortunate. We're to feed the hungry, clothed the naked. We're supposed to provide shelter."
WPTV spoke with Armando Fana, assistant city administrator for the city of West Palm Beach, who said the ordinance was needed.
"Well-intentioned groups come in to feed the homeless or feed others and provide their services and, unfortunately, they leave, and then the city and the rest of the citizens are left with the litter that's left behind and unsanitary conditions," Fana said. Fana encourages grassroots organizations to join city-led efforts to help the 14,000-plus people reported by Point in Time to be homeless last year in Palm Beach County. "We need food, housing, mental health, substance abuse assistance, all those things have to come together," Fana said. "Providing just food assistance alone is not going to get these individuals off the street. We want that help."
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