Hard Hearted Gainesville: "No Soup for You"

For more than a week, documentary filmmaker and homeless advocate, Diane Nilan and I have been winding our way through the southeastern United States speaking at universities, churches, and with civic groups discussing the need for new or expanded services for the homeless.

In many cases we've been screening her latest film, "On the Edge." Sometimes -- like when we showed the film at Tallahasse's Big Bend Homeless Coalition -- it's a dismal hour because the room's full of men, women and children who could have been featured in the show instead of just watching it. And when the homeless start to cry, it's not just empathy. They cry because, with slight variation, they're watching their own stories.

College students watch "On the Edge" from a different perspective. The students from the School of Social Work at Georgia Southern University echo the sentiments from rural northern Georgia and the Carolinas: there just aren't enough shelters and services for the ever increasing number of folks in dire need. And these "haves" are eager to help the "have-nots."

Then, we went to Gainesville.

We showed up around noon at the St. Francis House Soup Kitchen. We were greeted by about 10 fresh young faces at the food service line. Members of the University of Florida's Circle K club -- a division of Kiwanis International -- stood before full pans of food eager to feed the needy. Other than these volunteers, the room was empty. Poised with ladles in hand, they asked us to sign the numbered sheet so they could feed us.

It was noon time at a soup kitchen in a city of more than 120,000 people and there wasn't a person there eating.

We asked for the kitchen manager. Michael Robles came over and introduced himself. I said, "We hear there's a limit on how many people you can feed here at St. Francis." Robles confirmed that matter how much food he had, no matter how many nice kids volunteered to help, no matter how many hours he was willing to stay open, and no matter how many hungry people came to the door, the soup kitchen was not to feed more than 130 people.

About a year and a half ago, the Gainesville City Commissioners decided to enforce a decade old regulation that restricted St. Francis House from feeding more than 130 individuals at their soup kitchen. As frustrating as turning hungry people away when you have food can be; even more exasperating to Robles and the rest of the shelter staff is that "on the books" appears to be "off the books" and no city leader has ever produced proof of the regulation.

Still city commissioners enforce the rule and Robles is reminded that if he's feeds 131 people, his kitchen will be shut down and the single dad will be out of work.

Robles doesn't get it, "Because the shelter half of the building serves 280 people a day with showers, mail boxes, phones messages and hygiene products, we could probably feed 400." Robles estimates the higher number because folks don't have to be homeless to be hungry. "One of my toughest days, a mom came in with her two kids and we had already fed 128 people. I told her that she put us over the top. She said, 'Well, just feed my kids and I won't eat.' And that's what we had to do. We piled those two trays really high though." Robles smiled, "If the kids couldn't finish what they had, well I guess they took it home."

We stood in an overflowing food storage room. I asked why the city commissioners would so hardheartedly enforce such a ridiculous rule when there were plenty of hungry people and the soup kitchen had plenty of food. Rubles speculated, "It's about zoning." Once at the outskirts, St. Frances House is now in the heart of down town Gainesville; an anchor building surrounded by rundown workforce housing in an area only recently converted from septic systems to public sewer. Robles continued, "Developers want this area. Look across the street, they've built a dog park! They care more for their dogs to recreate than for the people to congregate."

The Gainesville Commissioners could change the law or suspend its enforcement. Or they could just continue letting people go hungry.