Christian group told to stop feeding people in city lot

Staff writerOctober 1, 2013 

Due to complaints from nearby businesses, the city informed the group last week that it can no longer feed hundreds of people on Thursdays and Saturdays out of a city parking lot southeast of the intersection of State Avenue and Washington Street.

TONY OVERMAN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Crazy Faith Ministries, a nondenominational Christian group that feeds street people twice a week in a city parking lot in downtown Olympia, is in a bind.

Due to complaints from nearby businesses, the city informed the group last week that it can no longer feed hundreds of people on Thursdays and Saturdays out of a city parking lot southeast of the intersection of State Avenue and Washington Street.

Now the group, which has provided free food for about two years, is trying to find a suitable location. In the meantime, Ben Charles, who founded the food program, is worried about being able to do something he feels called to do.

“We’re not a nonprofit,” he said. “We’re just people helping people. We’re not a church, and so it’s just essentially a potluck, a family get-together of sorts.”

Charles received an email last week from Olympia police Lt. Paul Lower saying that he can no longer use the parking lot.

Lower wrote that the complaints include “blocking vehicle traffic and parking,” “garbage and debris being left behind after your event,” “food handling safety” and “participant and public safety.”

His letter also cited the city’s Pedestrian Interference code, which bans anything that would “obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic” in a public place, including parking lots.

Lower could not be reached for further comment.

Charles said he and volunteers, about a dozen or more on any given night, clean the parking lot after use and that many of them have food-handling certifications. He questioned why he’s being targeted.

“There seems to be a lot of time consumed with an event that’s trying to help the public,” he said.

He said he would be bringing a group to Tuesday’s Olympia City Council meeting to address the issue.

It seems the project is the victim of its own success. Hundreds of people turn up for the Thursday night and Saturday morning feeds. Charles was planning to add a Saturday night meal. The meal is open to anyone, and the cost is a smile, Charles said.

On one night, the group teamed up with Little Caesar’s to deliver hundreds of slices of free pizza, and it has worked with Papa John’s as well, Charles said. On other nights, it has cooked “the best hot dogs,” Mariner Dogs, he said.

Tom Hill, the city’s chief inspector and building official, has been working with Charles on a resolution to the parking lot issue. Until recently, Hill told Charles he could use the parking lot. “He said just leave it better than you found it,” Charles said.

But that was before the complaints. Hill also noted that the area is very congested, being just across the street from the Olympia Transit Center.

Hill is looking at developing rules that would apply to any group that wants to use a city parking lot. Crazy Faith Ministries is not alone; the city has extended permission for other groups to use city parking lots, Hill said.

“We need to make it fair and consistent across the board” for all groups, Hill said.

Charles said that it’s important that the street feed be held outside, because some people wouldn’t come inside a church facility to eat.

“They’ve maybe been through some hard things or they’ve done time …” he said. “They don’t want to be in a closed space like that.”

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 mbatcheldor@ theolympian.com @MattBatcheldor

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