On an unseasonably cold and gloomy Sunday evening, a line of about 50 people stretches across Occidental Park in Pioneer Square. The men and women in line clutch large plastic trays as a group of about a dozen volunteers from Food Not Bombs (FNB)—a loosely organized nationwide group of activists working to feed the homeless—offer up scoops of vegan mashed potatoes, veggie stir-fry, and guacamole.
Just as the food starts to run out, two parks department trucks roll into the park. One parks employee starts scribbling down the license-plate numbers of two volunteers' cars and makes a call. Minutes later, two Seattle Police Department cars pull up near the edge of the park.
The young FNB volunteers—some with dyed hair, others wearing Operation Ivy hoodies—are visibly nervous about the police presence, but say it isn't anything new. Volunteers say that in the last month, they've repeatedly been shooed out of the park by the parks department and SPD. Employees for those agencies, in turn, say the order to crack down on unauthorized meal programs like FNB's came straight from Mayor Greg Nickels's office. Nickels's spokesman, Alex Fryer, claims the mayor has not issued any specific edict to crack down on the meals in Occidental Park. However, he adds that the crackdowns are "for safety's sake and public health's sake."
The city's response is part of a larger citywide crackdown on perceived health and safety issues associated with the homeless. In the past year, city and county workers have torn down encampments tucked away in greenbelts, shut down another meal program in City Hall Park, and corralled a number of other homeless meal programs, including Operation Sack Lunch, onto a lot under the I-5 overpass at Sixth Avenue and Columbia Street—nearly a mile from the halfway houses and shelters in Pioneer Square and outside the downtown ride-free transit zone.
FNB volunteers say the group has no plans to follow other homeless programs to the city-sanctioned parking lot. The organization, which started as an antinuclear group in the 1980s and gradually evolved into an antihunger organization, emphasizes healthy meals that are easy for homeless people to access. And that's part of what's gotten them into trouble.
In an April 23 letter to FNB volunteers, the parks department claims FNB's weekly dinner at Occidental Park is a health and safety hazard and says the city expects "all organizations" to serve their meals at "the only approved city site," at Sixth and Columbia. Police officers say they're concerned about fights in the park. However, one FNB volunteer named Ozzie (who wanted to be identified by his first name only) says, "I've seen more fights outside of bars on Pioneer Square" than in Occidental Park. Nonetheless, Ozzie and several other volunteers say police and parks officials have threatened them with parks exclusion citations—barring them from all Seattle parks for up to a year—if they continue to serve the homeless in Occidental Park.
The city employees who've been dealing with FNB don't seem terribly excited at the prospect of writing tickets or issuing citations. One parks employee bagging up garbage in Occidental Park says he "feel[s] like a snitch" whenever he has to report FNB, but he's been ordered to call police any time he sees a group meal in any Seattle park. One police officer at the park on Sunday apologetically tells a group of FNB volunteers, "I don't have a problem with it; I just have to let you know [you can't do it here]."
For now, FNB plans to stay as long as they can. When asked how important the Occidental Park site is to FNB, Ozzie pauses. "You'd have to ask hungry people that," he says. "My personal inclination is that if it's not there, there are some people who aren't going to be able to eat."