A photo taken of a man’s hand flipping off a small sign on the edge of downtown San Jose’s St. James Park has triggered collective disgust and anger in the Twittersphere against the city.
The sign, fastened to a pole, warns: “The distribution of food and clothing to the general public in a public park without a city permit is prohibited.”
The photo went viral last month, with Twitter users zinging the city for brandishing new signs about a two-decade-old law that few people had heard of and keeping them up through a crippling global pandemic and cold winter months.
They called it hateful and cruel, said it represented “nimby liberalism” and accused the city of trying to “screw the poor at every chance.” A handful of Twitter users even threatened to take the signs down or spray-paint over them.
Although the rule affects all city parks, people found the signs especially distasteful along St. James Park, a prominent downtown green space that has become a gathering area for unhoused residents. City officials are attempting to redesign and transform it into an iconic destination for residents and visitors.
So why did San Jose enact a policy in 2005 forbidding food and clothing distribution at parks without a permit?
In a memo from that time, then-parks director Sara Hensley said distributing food or clothing “does not constitute an appropriate event” for city parks.
Since organizers of other special park events such as a cultural celebrations, entertainment acts and children’s activities were required to first obtain permits, Hensley apparently reasoned that food and clothing distribution events should be handled the same way.
San Jose wasn’t the only city to take that approach. Hayward, for instance, also prohibits distribution of food and clothing in its parks without a permit. San Francisco generally does not allow food or clothing giveaways in parks, but it began letting established food banks pass out food under free emergency use permits when the pandemic hit.
Mountain View, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale do not specifically require permits for food and clothing distribution events but do ask that people obtain one before hosting any event that draws more than 50 people in a park.
During events held without permits, San Jose officials often receive complaints about people blocking sidewalks and roadways and failing to clean up after themselves, according to Ed Bautista of the city’s Parks Department. There are also concerns about how safe the food that’s distributed might be.
“It’s not meant to be negative,” Bautista said about the rule. “We understand and are compassionate about food insecurity affecting our community, but we want to find that balance for the park and for the entire community.”
To underscore his point, Bautista noted the city issued a $187,000 grant to the organization Opening Doors in July 2019 to provide meals in a parking lot adjacent to St. James Park on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
According to Bill Lee, executive director of the regional food pantry Martha’s Kitchen, San Jose’s concerns are valid. Lee often sees bags of food or clothing dumped on the edges of city parks and roadways by people who mean well but, in his mind, are going about it the wrong way.
“There’s a lot of good humanity out there, but sometimes they just don’t know how to help, where to go or what to do,” Lee said. “I’d tell those people to come out and help organizations like us, and we’ll get the maximum amount of people fed cleanly, safely and efficiently.”
At the same time, Lee acknowledges there are some unhoused residents who cannot always get to a food kitchen.
“Its not a black-and-white thing,” he said. “There are some people who are going to be negatively impacted by this. But does this do the greater good for a greater number of people? You could argue that. Is that acceptable ethics? I’m not sure.”
Saugam Hamal, a 37-year-old man who became homeless last year after he was released form jail, said he receives most of his food and the blankets and clothes that keep him warm at night from organizations that provide services in and around St. James Park.
“When I got homeless, I didn’t know where to ask for help,” he said, adding that he felt he had limited options because he’s an undocumented immigrant. “So I’m just thankful for these people. At least you have food and clothes and you don’t have to worry about it.”
Signs have long been on display at most of the city’s popular parks with a long list of officials’ top park rules. But then, several months before the pandemic, the city broke out the food and clothing distribution regulation into separate signs.
Bautista said the new signs like those along East St. John Street on the southern edge of St. James Park were added as part of an awareness campaign launched before the pandemic in concert with new permit policies.
For years, anyone who wanted to host an event in a city park was required to obtain a special park-use permit, which would cost individuals or organizations as much as $500. More recently, though, the city began offering a cheaper “activity permit” specifically for food and clothing distribution events.
“We tried to reduce the cost to make sure folks could do it right,” Bautista said. “The intent is really to help people do this legally and safely, and then we give them the public health information on providing the best food and so forth.”
That explanation doesn’t quell the indignation from some residents and homeless advocates who see the policy as “disgusting,” “despicable” and “inhumane.”
A man known as San Jose’s Batman, who wears an elaborate Batman costume and visits the city’s homeless communities handing out food, water and clothing, said he had just heard about the rule last month and was “actively against it.”
“It’s blatantly obvious that they want to discourage people from staying and congregating there (at St. James Park) because the city of San Jose believes that having a public park is more important than human life — even in a pandemic,” he said.”