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Hagerstown won't allow groups to feed homeless at city lots

Soul Food Ministries will be allowed to continue through September

July 16, 2013|By HOLLY SHOK | holly.shok@herald-mail.com
  • People wait in line Wednesday September 12 at Soul Food event at Market Lot in Hagerstown.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

The Hagerstown City Council will not permit organizations to use city parking lots for the distribution of food to the homeless, but the organization that has been feeding up to 100 people at the Market House parking lot every Wednesday for several years will be allowed to continue through September.

Soul Food Ministries — operated by Carl Booker with help from Justin Repp, the pastor of Lifehouse Church West, and 16 area churches — has been distributing free food on Wednesday afternoons beginning around 4 p.m. at the Market House lot at the corner of Jonathan and Church streets.

The parking lot serves the Market House, the Hagerstown Fire Department administration, post office employees and the general public.

Two additional organizations recently contacted the city about hosting similar weekday afternoon free meals for the homeless, working poor and unemployed in that parking lot, city Public Works Director Eric Deike said at a council meeting Tuesday at City Hall.

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But some council members raised concerns about such events being hosted in “highly visible” local spaces.

A guide on where to go for free meals called “Rail and Trails” advertises Hagerstown as a highly desirable location, council members noted.

“Might as well go ahead and put a roof over it, because it’s going to continue to grow,” Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh said of the lot, noting she would prefer that an enclosed space be used.

Former city Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II permitted Soul Food to use the parking lot several years ago, according to previous reports in The Herald-Mail.

The five-member council reached a consensus that Soul Food can exclusively operate in the parking lot through September, but city officials will work with the organization to find a permanent building-based location.

Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire said there are at least three dozen “other acceptable alternative locations of entities that provide similar types of activities to address social need in structures, on private properties, in downtown.”

“I’m trying to find the logic of why we would say, ‘You know what the best place for this is downtown, at a parking lot for an unspecified number of groups, for an unspecified number of purposes on an unspecified number of days ...’ To me there’s just no logic to that at all,” Aleshire said.

No assistance would be required from the city to allow the parking lot events to continue. However, the city would have needed organizations to have insurance with $1 million product liability and another $1 million in personal injury coverage to protect both the organization overseeing the event and the city from financial risk.

“What we’re dealing with is a bunch of very good, well-intentioned volunteers, who we need to help find the appropriate place,” Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said.

Mayor David S. Gysberts questioned why the 16 churches that partnered with Soul Food could not host the weekly meal.

According to Repp, who spoke before the council, many of the participating churches are located too far away for Hagerstown’s walkable homeless population, and the lot is particularly accessible to the “working poor.”

Overall, Repp said he was pleased with the meeting’s results, especially if they lead to a permanent location for Soul Food, which he noted feeds between 50 and 100 people every Wednesday throughout the year. 

“We’re here to work with the city, we’re here to partner with them, and we’re here to serve this city ... This should be about solving the trouble of homelessness for those who want it solved,” Repp said.

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