Volunteers and organizers believe they’re doing God’s work. Police say it lacks proper permits, attracts troublemakers from outside the area and have threatened arrests.
"Something’s going to have to change," Pastor Ed Wren said.
Wren and the Christian Biker Tabernacle are the organizers of the Friday Night Feed and its spinoff event on Saturday. Each week, dozens of volunteers meet at a parking lot on 25th Street under Interstate 705 near the Tacoma Dome to distribute food and clothing to the homeless and low-income population.
Tacoma Police Department officers say the event can’t operate without a permit (the event hasn’t had one for more than a year) and threatened arrests before last week’s feeds but backed off.
The department’s plan on how to handle this weekend’s feeds had yet to be finalized as of Thursday afternoon, Capt. Mark Langford said. He added that while the department isn’t against the events, the police department’s job is to enforce the law – including permitting and public right-of-way ordinances.
Public-safety concerns also surround the event.
"A big concern when dealing with the homeless population is to not categorize or label homeless people as being criminals," he said, "but there is a criminal element who tries to take advantage of that environment and prey on some of the people." This is just the latest in a years-long dispute between organizers and the city, Wren said. He met with city officials two years ago to look for alternative sites for the service, but the two sides couldn’t agree on moving.
A fight in October and another, more serious brawl on Jan. 26 that city officials said involved more than 15 people, including two with guns, brought negative attention to the feed.
That led to tense moments last weekend.
"On Friday, officers came and told us we had to vacate or be arrested," Wren said. "We told them we were going to stay. They said, ‘Well, we won’t push you off tonight, but if you show up tomorrow, we’ll arrest you.’
"… They asked if I was still going to come down, and I said, ‘Most certainly. The people will be there, and we’ll be there to help them.’"
Volunteers called and e-mailed media outlets in the area, and three Seattle television stations were on hand for Saturday’s feed – something Wren believes stopped TPD from arresting anyone.
But, the pastor said, he’s more than willing to be arrested for the cause.
"We have a right under the First and 14th Amendments to exercise our religious beliefs," he said. "And the Bible tells us to help the less fortunate."
Organizers applied for a permit about 5 weeks ago, but the process can take up to 60 days. The city’s two biggest concerns have been rectified, Wren said, with the addition of $1 million in liability insurance and portable toilets.
A decision on the permit hasn’t been reached because the city is still negotiating with the State Department of Transportation about how long the property under I-705 will remain under city control, city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said. WSDOT has plans to take over the lease on the property.
Volunteers from schools and churches serve up to 400 people a night, Wren said, and provides them with three or four days’ worth of food.
But the city has worked hard to reduce the number of chronic homeless. The sale of high-powered cheap booze is illegal in certain areas. Encampments have been closed, and their residents evicted. Aggressive panhandling is banned.
But hundreds, not all of whom are homeless, arrive each weekend for help. And that means Wren and his organizers plan to be there.
"I still can’t understand why they’re so vindictive about the situation with the homeless and poor people," he said. "I think they don’t want the street people and the homeless people there, but the reality is that they will always be there."