Public places like Portuguese Park near C Street
in Hayward attract free food-sharing operators.
Rehabilitating Hayward’s slumping downtown to attract new businesses and retain existing ones has been a constant problem exacerbated over the years by a middling local economy. Similarly, homelessness and poverty has also been nagging problems for this former industrial town. Both problems appear on a collision course.
“It’s a real thorny issue,” says Councilmember Barbara Halliday. “We have a right to be concerned about some of the activities that are going around this issue. All of us are compassionate people and we certainly cared about those who don’t have food and those people fall into a lot of different categories.”
Halliday added the issue contains many competing interests from the city goal to entice shoppers to Hayward. More people spending money downtown, already perceived by some as unsafe, she said, will mean increased revenue for the city to provide better social services.
“I hope people aren’t viewing us as heartless because we’re taking up this issue, but there has to be some balance. There has to be some rules.” Permitting on public private may be needed, she said, as did other council members. Currently, there is no requirement for free food-sharing operators to obtain a city permit to distribute food in public spaces.
Sara Lamnin, a noted community activist for the poor in Hayward and former city council and school board candidate, urged the council not to direct city staff to begin work possible solutions such as instituting a permitting process or zoning changes. Instead, she said the city should focus on working with all stakeholders from businesses, churches and social service agencies for a long-term solution. One possible solution, Lamnin advocated, includes finding a central location for all food-sharing groups to feed the needy. Such a plan, some councilmembers concluded, might take years to implement, in addition, to being costly.
According to the staff report, between 6 and 12 food-sharing groups operate in Hayward at one time or another serving 50-100 people at downtown locations such as Portuguese Centennial Park, Newman Park, City Hall Plaza, Library Plaza near the main branch of the public library and some municipal parking lots. Nearby business owners tell the city the sites are often littered with debris and overflowing garbage cans, sometimes attract people who display aggressive behavior and relieve themselves in public. The report, however, notes there may not be any correlation between such behavior and those who obtain free meals at the sites.
Councilmember Mark Salinas says high unemployment is the root problem. “We need local employers to step up and hire Hayward people,” he says. “If the city is going to step up and commit resources or commit ideas, I think local employers should also step up and meet us halfway on this.”
Poverty and homelessness is will always be ubiquitous in our society, said Councilmember Greg Jones. “It’s something we can affect locally, but can’t solve locally.” However, Jones said he favors reclaiming the public spaces from use by one group.
“I just want to recognize the monopolization, frankly, of a public space for a specific use,” Jones said. “That space is available to the community, not just to one particular user. When we allow that to happen we need to be careful with that because we are precluding others in the community, perhaps, from enjoying that public space.”
The most surprising comments, however, came from Mayor Michael Sweeney, who openly chided the seemingly good faith of groups outside Hayward for helping the city with its poor. “I don’t mean to be a little difficult, but it seems to me if folks in Castro Valley want to feed homeless folks, maybe they should do it in Castro Valley,” said Sweeney. “I don’t know why Hayward deserves that privilege. It seems to me that if people in Castro Valley want to open up their front yard or their home in Castro Valley public spaces, that’s something they should look to do.”
Sweeney is also the executive director of Spectrum Community Services, a non-profit that feeds needy seniors. City Manager Fran David says staff will likely bring back the issue to the City Council sometime in May. However, even David seemed flummoxed by the issue. When Halliday expressed confusion over what city staff was asking of the council, David responded, “You’re absolutely right. It is confusing.”