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Thursday, August 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:02 A.M.
Free-meal programs go back to plaza
By Bob Young
In an abrupt turnaround, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels moved meal programs for the homeless from City Hall Park back to a plaza outside the city's vacant Public Safety Building.
Nickels' decision yesterday came in response to mounting controversy about his proposal to shut down evening meals at the park because of increased violence there. The mayor said knives, fistfights, threats and the attempted theft of a police car made the park unsafe for providers and homeless people. Earlier this week, Nickels had ordered providers to stop serving meals at the park after 4 p.m.
The park restriction will remain in place. But starting today, providers can move back to the plaza. Nickels announced the relocation yesterday in a brief statement, saying the plaza, near the corner of Fourth Avenue and Cherry Street, "has worked safely for several years."
The city moved the food programs to nearby City Hall Park last month because demolition of the old Public Safety Building was scheduled to start later this month. Nickels said the demolition plans changed, allowing the food programs to return to the plaza for a few months. Today, meals will again be served there.
"It's wonderful. I think the plaza is a better location," said Kay Abe, coordinator of The Lord's Table, a coalition of church groups that has served evening meals at both the park and plaza. On average, providers serve about 300 meals per night. Nickels stressed that the plaza is "only a short-term location." He said the city would work with nonprofit provider groups to come up with a permanent solution.
In defiance of Nickels' restriction on meals in the park, dozens of volunteers with Operation Sack Lunch set up their blue canopy last night and doled out hearty helpings of chili and tortillas to a couple hundred people. Organizers said it was the first time Seattle police officers had stood watch over the meal line.
City Council members Peter Steinbrueck, Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen wore plastic gloves as they scooped food onto Styrofoam plates. "Meeting the needs of hungry people is providing relief from the stress and tension of living on the streets," Steinbrueck said, adding that such programs can help enhance safety when the homeless aren't left to fend for themselves.
Rasmussen praised groups like Operation Sack Lunch, a 15-year-old nonprofit he said was "booted out of Occidental Park" years ago, then moved meals to the plaza and recently has been among those serving food at City Hall Park. "I want to let the public know that I do support these critical programs," said Rasmussen. "I've been told I won't be cited or thrown into jail. And I will definitely work to find ways to keep meal programs operating in a safe and healthy environment."
He credited Seattle citizens for the mayor's revised policy. He said their response probably had "great influence" on the mayor.
"Some were saddened and some were outraged to see the program ended," he said. "We have to give the people of Seattle much credit for this, as well as to the meal providers."
Casey Corr, a spokesman for Nickels, said fears that the mayor was trying to push homeless people out of the city through incremental steps, such as the feeding restrictions, were "absurd."
"The mayor's goal was safety first. If people are getting beat up, they can't eat," Corr said, adding that the city's "commitment to the needy is long-established and strong."
For the past month, a small group of clergy and other activists has been sitting in the mayor's office lobby to protest anticipated cuts in next year's city budget for social-service programs. City revenues are expected to fall about $25 million short of what is needed to maintain current service levels throughout Seattle.
Last year, the city spent $19.7 million on programs that provide food, housing, showers and employment services to the homeless and potentially homeless.
The public-meals program was at the plaza for about eight years before being moved to City Hall Park. The plaza has camera surveillance, good lighting and an intercom to city security. It also has running water.
Initially, the city expected it would need the plaza area to stage the old Public Safety Building demolition. The city's plan calls for gutting the inside of the building later this month. The building itself will be leveled in November, said John Franklin, the mayor's chief of departmental operations.
As plans were refined, Franklin said, city officials realized they didn't need the plaza for staging the demolition. The building will be sealed off during the inside work, protecting the public from any hazardous debris, he said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this story. Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or email@example.com
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