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Originally published January 17, 2012 at 9:22 PM | Page modified January 17, 2012 at 10:26 PM

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City bites hand that feeds homeless

Curbside al fresco is so hip that Seattle officials have put up a website to promote the street-food craze. But not if you're homeless, says Beverly Graham, whose Operation: Sack Lunch serves meals, mostly outdoors, to the low- and no-income.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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this act of stupidity has to rank high in any record book... I can go to a coffee van... MORE
Ahh...Mayor McGinn at his finest. The poor are an affront to the greens. Human... MORE
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Nothing's hipper right now in Seattle than street food.

Every day, people line up in parking lots at any of 45 trucks around the city to nosh on miso-ginger tacos to lumpia. Curbside al fresco is so hot that city officials have put up a website to boost the street-food craze.

Unless you're homeless, says Beverly Graham. Then eating outside is "inhumane, disrespectful and undignified."

That's how Graham said city officials characterized her famed Operation: Sack Lunch, which since 1989 has served nearly 3 million meals — most of them outdoors — to downtown's "no- and low-income."

The city plans to shut the downtown meal site — at Sixth and Columbia, in a parking lot beneath I-5 — on Feb. 29. About 200 line up there three times a day to get hot breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The city wants the meals moved inside. According to Graham, they said this is not only to help the homeless, but because lining them up outside like cattle at a feedlot doesn't treat them with proper respect.

"So it's OK for hipsters with money but not for these guys?" Graham said Tuesday when I joined her under the interstate at lunchtime.

About 150 people sat on benches in a parking lot, cradling steaming plates of three-bean lasagna, salad and hot apple cider. A light snow whispered through gaps in the roaring freeway overhead. The space is relatively clean, with a hand-washing station, a porta-potty and benches.

Nobody said they found it demeaning. "It's not the Four Seasons," one shrugged. "But it's hot and good, and they treat you nice."

"It beats the shelters," said another.

"We did have prime rib on Christmas Eve," pointed out a third.

Graham, a onetime nightclub singer and bodybuilder, had an epiphany in the 1980s after nearly dying from a multiple sclerosis attack. As she lay around recovering, she says, she couldn't stop thinking about people she saw every day Dumpster-diving or begging on downtown streets.

"I thought: How would they handle a crisis like this? I couldn't stop thinking about doing something for them. Not fixing them. Just bringing them a little temporary comfort."

So in 1989 she started handing out sandwiches to the poor in Pioneer Square. She was dubbed The Lunch Lady. The homeless started posting a sentry to watch for her van. Some days 400 would line up to get a meal.

She wasn't the only saint doing this. The reason we have an official downtown meal site is to consolidate as many of the street-meal providers as possible. Today, nearly 40 churches and social-service organizations contribute food and volunteers at this one spot.

A city Human Services Department spokesman, David Takami, said the point of closing the outdoor site isn't to stop giving meals. It's to do it indoors. He says the city is working to secure three places where the homeless could get a meal as well as access to other services.

"It wasn't our intention at all to slight people," he said.

I'm betting ruffled feathers will be smoothed and all this will be worked out. Because people who devote their lives to helping the homeless — another is Kay Abe of The Lord's Table, whom the city stupidly went to war with years ago in a similar controversy — are not easily dissuaded. They would probably ignore the city and go back to serving meals the way they used to. Guerilla-style.

To that end, Graham showed me one of her two refrigerated vans, donated by Boeing and the Seattle Foundation. She uses them to deliver food to meal sites all over King County.

"You know if the city kicks you out of here, you could turn this into a food truck," I suggested. "Except for the homeless."

"I hear food trucks are all the rage," she said.

If it's good enough for the hipsters. ...

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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