Responding to a barrage of criticism, city officials gave a reprieve today to a homeless meal program that feeds hundreds of people a week under the downtown freeway.
Officials will no longer force Operation Sack Lunch (OSL) to move to an indoor location by February 29—a move the project's leaders had insisted would shut them down—and have instead given the program six-months to find a new location with indoor and outdoor components. "We had gotten feedback from the community and we wanted to take that feedback into consideration, so we thought it was necessary to do the six months," says Danette Smith, director of the Seattle Human Services Department.
The decision—both to boot OSL from the freeway and the extend the timeline—came from Smith, who had reportedly described the current conditions under the freeway as "undignified, inhumane, and disrespectful," according to Operation Sack Lunch's website.
"I used those terms to describe how I felt at times in my own personal journey and the way other people may feel," Smith explained today. "I just ask that we be mindful of the impact it has on the people receiving the services."
Funded by the city since 2007, Operation Sack Lunch has operated under I-5 at Cherry Street since 2007. It serves roughly 3,000 meals per week at an annual cost to the city of of $132,000. Beverly Graham, the director of OSL, couldn't immediately be reached for comment this afternoon.
Instead of keeping OSL at its current location, Smith, who took her post in Seattle 18 months ago after moving from Atlanta, believes an indoor location would better connect meal recipients with social services. However, Seattle City Council member Nick Licata's office described a compromise in an email to constituents this afternoon. It would allow a task force identify a location with "a centralized kitchen concept that would have an indoor and outdoor component." This would allow those who don't want to go indoors for meals—and don't necessarily want to face social service workers—to grab their food outside.
"It was never our intent to shut that program down," said Smith said at the end of our conversation. "Since the beginning, the goal was to keep them in the fold with us." (Read more from Smith in a post on Mayor Mike McGinn's blog.)