In an effort to reduce potential health risks to the community and maintain the aesthetic value of the city’s parks, the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday, May 8th, voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance that would prohibit the public from placing food for the homeless in municipal parks, sidewalks and parkways.

The new city law would also ban leaving clothing and other items in parks, as these articles have also begun to accumulate in recent years.

“The city has been working for several years now on how to balance the use in our parks,” said Community and Cultural Services Department director Barbara Stinchfield.

The director said that problems arise when “well-meaning people drop off food in the park, and it attracts people who are hoping to benefit from that.”

In addition to being a possible health risk, the practice of leaving food in the park can encourage rodents and other infestations, say city officials.

Councilman Kevin McKeown echoed Stinchfield’s concerns regarding health hazards that unattended foodstuffs might cause.

“The public health aspect of the ordinance is what convinced me [to vote for it],” said McKeown. “Over the last several years, [the city] has responsibly moved the feeding of homeless people inside so that they can safely, and with dignity, connect with other agencies that can provide meaningful assistance.

“That’s real help.”

According to the Santa Monica city attorney’s office, the existing laws in the Municipal Code, such as littering statutes, do not apply to this particular situation.

“If you look at the definition of littering, it implies an action of discarding food or objects that are no longer useful, but not leaving food for others in parks,” explained city attorney Marsha Moutrie. “So, we don’t think that littering laws cover the situation.”

“There are alternative ways to provide people with information so that they can directly give to agencies that can provide services for (the homeless),” said Stinchfield.

In addition to foodstuffs, clothing and other items are routinely left alone in city parks for those in need. This is detrimental to park aesthetics, say Community and Cultural Services officials, and can hamper park maintenance activities.

Advocates for the homeless interviewed for this story disagreed on the merits of the new law.

“I think that [the ordinance] is a good idea,” Lisa Fischer, director of the Westside Shelter and Hunger Coalition told The Argonaut. “With advanced planning, caterers who are going to have leftover food can contact us or other agencies that can connect with some of the service provider, so that food can get to homeless folks directly.”

Fischer mentioned the Westside Food Bank as an alternate agency that would be able to assist with meals that caterers, families or individuals might want to donate. Many of the service providers could assist with blankets, clothing and other items, she added.

“To say that leaving food there is going to create a rodent problem, I feel that was a far-reaching argument,” said Jerry Rubin, a Santa Monica activist. “I don’t think it’s common sense [to say] that it’s a common health argument.”

“The food is always snatched up,” he continued. “It’s not sitting there waiting for so-called rodents. Homeless people get it and eat it fast. And [they] appreciate it too,” he said.

But Rubin agreed that there are other ways that people in need could receive food through service agencies.

“There’s ways this can be done in a more coordinated way,” the activist said.

There will be a second reading of the ordinance later this year. If the council does not rescind its action, the ordinance would take effect shortly thereafter, according to Moutrie.

Violations of the new law would constitute a misdemeanor pursuant to Santa Monica Municipal Code, Section 4.55.130.