Health officials in St. Louis have ordered a street church to stop serving hot meals to the city's homeless residents, stoking widespread public outrage.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a front-page feature last Sunday about Churches on the Streets ministry, its leader, Edward "Pastor Paul" Gonnella, and the group's work serving and 'saving' St. Louis' needy. The community-based network of Christians has been "sharing the love of Jesus"-- and sharing hot meals-- with the city's homeless denizens for over a year.
Churches on the Streets has no permanent home, hence its name. ThinkProgress reported that dozens of the more than 1,300 homeless residents of St. Louis gather at the Cotton Belt Rail Depot on Mondays to share home-cooked meals and listen to "Pastor Paul's" sermons.
Hope and belonging are recurrent themes at Churches on the Streets.
"A lot of the people here don't feel welcome in [other] churches, which is sad," church organizer Ralph Valdes told the Post-Dispatch. "So we try to put out the idea that you're accepted here, that there is hope."
"Here, you feel like you're not alone," said Mike Simmons, a 26-year-old mentally ill man who's been homeless for a decade.
The Post-Dispatch piece brought the group considerable attention, and not all of it beneficial.
In fact, as the paper reported the day after its cover story, the St. Louis City Department of Health ordered Churches on the Streets to stop serving meals to the needy because it did not have the proper permit.
"They're doing a good thing, they really are," health department supervisor Pat Mahony told the Post-Dispatch. But he stood by the city's decision. "It's because they're serving the public," he explained. "The moment you start inviting the public to attend, that's when we get into it."
One way around the city's ban would be to serve pre-packaged meals instead of ones cooked by the group. Pre-packaged foods are exempt from permitting requirements.
Still, the health department's move has upset and outraged many in the community, especially those who relied upon Churches on the Streets for hot meals.
"Some of these people here are really hungry, and a hot meal helps them through the week," Monday night regular Frank Meyer, 57, told the Post-Dispatch.
Valdes, the church organizer, is taking it all in stride.
"They're kind of kicking us out of the nest, but maybe it's time to move on," he told the Post-Dispatch. "We are Churches on the Streets, so we have to get back to the streets. I think it'll be a light bulb for all of us to figure out what's next. We'll figure out something for the future."
ThinkProgress points out that many cities and towns across America have banned feeding the homeless. In Orlando, Florida, a national group called Food Not Bombs defied laws, courts and police in order to continue handing out free food to homeless residents in city parks.
"We're going to do what we feel is right," Food Not Bombs member Gemma Thompson told a local TV news reporter in 2011. "Everyone deserves to be fed."