The wrong thing for the right reason

Yesterday, the WaPo reported that Fairfax County would henceforth prohibit volunteers from serving home-cooked foods to homeless people. My phone started ringing almost as soon as the newspaper hit the doorsteps.

We are a community that has always reached out to help homeless people. Nearly 30 years ago, my friend and mentor Eleanor Kennedy went to the Board of Supervisors with the startling news that there were homeless people in Fairfax County.

No one believed her. This, after all, was affluent Fairfax. But Eleanor persisted. She persuaded churches to open their doors to homeless people during the winter months. She was not surprised (although others were) when people showed up. Eventually, she persuaded the County to open one small shelter in southeastern Fairfax County.

Today, we know that at least 2,000 people–many of them children–are homeless each day in Fairfax County. Well-run, professional shelters provide many of these individuals services well beyond “three hots and a cot.” From education to drug treatment to mental health counseling, Fairfax shelters have helped many people end the cycle of homelessness and hopelessness.

But there are still some people who live on the streets. And the churches continue to be involved in serving them. This is where the issue arose. Many of the churches have kitchens that have not been officially “blessed” by the County Health Department. They rely on volunteers to provide nutritious food for people who are spending the night.

That’s what the County has stopped. It’s certainly a policy that is based on good intentions–no one wants anyone to get a food-borne illness. But many of the people who stay in temporary shelters would otherwise be eating food from the trash can or the dumpster.

Several years ago, the General Assembly passed legislation that exempted food sold at bake sales from the same kind of heavy-handed regulation. I will be introducing legislation to do the same for home-cooked food that is served at shelters.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should report that I am a former President of New Hope Housing, the successor organization to that first homeless shelter started by Eleanor Kennedy.

4 thoughts on “The wrong thing for the right reason”

  1. Besides, all Scandinavians know that hot dish (at least the tunafish kind with the crushed potato chips on top) has medicinal qualities.

  2. My jaw dropped when I read that piece in yesterday’s Post. We have a similar organization in Charlottesville, PACEM, which provides shelter and food for the homeless during the cold seasons. It’s a group organized around various faith groups and brings the best out in everybody. Home-cooked meals are a key part of this organization. It would be devasting to both the volunteers and beneficiaries to have bureaucrats (no matter how well-meaning) tell us that we could no longer provide these meals. Our families eat them – why can’t our homeless friends do so?

    Thank you for taking the initiative to introduce legislation to carve out an exception that will fix this problem. Let us know, via your website, if there’s anything that needs to be done on our parts to see your bill become law.

  3. Will do. Even if Fairfax County fixes this situation (which I rather suspect they will do as quickly as they can, given the DREADFUL publicity), it’s still there in the code.

  4. I hope someone will introduce your bill in the state legislature. Norfolk continues to harrass groups attempting to serve hot meals to the homeless….


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