Successful Meals-for-Homeless Gatherings Encounter Red Tape

Sometimes, something can become so successful and well-known that it risks failure. That’s precisely the situation that faces organizers of a popular event that’s fed some of the city’s poorest, most vulnerable people for three years.

Diners enjoy free meals at the MLK Park. Photo by Monique Welin.

Every Saturday morning, the Martin Luther King Jr. Park in central Redding is transformed into a public, popup potluck banquet. Although the meals are free to anyone who shows up, the intended honored guests are the unhoused, the hungry, the at-risk, the struggling, the poor, the weather-beaten and the lonely.

For 144 Saturdays at the MLK Park, compassionate concerned citizens have joined forces to assemble white plastic folding tables, and then load the tables with a bounty of food, much of it homecooked dishes prepared by volunteers in their own kitchens.

A guest at the potluck in the MLK Park enjoys food served by a volunteer. Photo by Monique Welin.

Fried chicken, baked beans, hot soups, macaroni-and-cheese, potato salads, cooked hams, enchiladas, rolls and butter, spaghetti, sandwiches, cakes, pies, cookies, donuts, fresh fruit and just about every food you could imagine has found its way to the MLK Park most Saturdays from about 9 to 11 a.m.

With each week the potluck in the park gained guests and popularity, to the point where sometimes there were nearly as many volunteers as diners. During the 2022 elections, the event was often attended by various elected leaders and hopeful candidates, who pitched in to help serve some of the city’s most downtrodden individuals.

As the meals in MLK Park grew in popularity and attendance, organizers discussed how nice it would be if the city would share keys to MLK Park’s restrooms for their guests. Oh, and while they were asking the city for the restroom keys, the organizers also wondered if the city could please provide keys so they could unlock the exterior outlets, so volunteers could use electricity for on-site cooking.

That was it. Just two simple requests: keys to the restrooms and keys to the outlets. After three years without restrooms and electrical access, what a game-changer those two simple things would be. The volunteer who’d approached the city with those two minor requests ended up in a meeting at city hall.

The volunteers were confident. The guests were excited.

What could possibly go wrong?

Cue a ticker-tape parade of red tape.

Prior to the volunteer’s trip to city hall, the potluck in the park had flown quietly beneath the city and county’s radar for years on a blissful cloud of don’t ask, don’t tell, and it’s better-to-ask for forgiveness than permission.

The group’s previous bliss turned to panic. The requests for restroom keys and outlet access triggered official knowledge of the meals in the MLK Park. Therefore, the city couldn’t feign ignorance about the potlucks in the park, or turn a blind eye, or un-ring the bell of information. Suddenly, potlucks in the park were in the city’s crosshairs. Not that the city wanted to kill the event, per se. But the moment city officials had knowledge of the public meals in MLK Park was the moment they were obligated to city-splain strict health-and-safety restrictions.

The immediate order: no more potlucks in the park, because what the volunteers were doing was against a host of food-handling safety regulations. For starters, if the group wanted to continue feeding people at the MLK Park, they’d need a crowd permit and a food permit.

Following a frustrating meeting at city hall, the exasperated volunteer who’d approached the city posted a message on Facebook.

In a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished turn of events, the volunteer subsequently took heat from other volunteers for approaching the city, because it had instigated the city’s intrusion into something that had worked fine for years. To them, it wasn’t broken, so why fix it?

“The food permit is the issue,” the volunteer explained in a Facebook post. “The city is clearly aware that there’s about a dozen or so people who come and serve a fresh hot meal they made at home. Permit laws state that all food must be prepared either on site or in a professional kitchen that can be inspected. Most of us don’t have the time or resources to setup and cook on site. As it is we are only there for less than 3 hours, so to setup, prep, cook, and serve is pretty tough unless it’s a basic simple meal.”

So many questions

Monique Welin of Redding is one of the Saturday MLK Park meal organizers. Three years ago she joined forces with friends Skippy Abbott and Jerry Harral, two men she describes as true men of God.

Jerry Harral gives a haircut to friend Skippy Abbott. The men have fed hungry, unhoused people in Redding’s parks for about three years. Photo by Monique Welin.

A News Cafe caught up with Monique Welin this week to learn more about the status of the MLK Park potlucks; its history, what happened, where it’s going and what she sees for its future.

Please join me in welcoming Monique Welin to A News Cafe.

Monique Welin sets up a table of food at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Redding. Photo courtesy of Monique Welin.

Q: Hi, Monique. Anyone who regularly attends Shasta County Board of Supervisors meetings will recognize you as a frequent, passionate public-commenter. Often your comments express concern for the community’s underserved, especially the unhoused, the addicted and the mentally ill. You’re an open book of sorts, and you’ve shared publicly some graphic personal details about being raised by a mother who suffered from schizophrenia, and the 10 years you and your sister were homeless with your mom, and the violent death of your sister. You’ve been there to support your friend Brenda, another frequent speaker, about Brenda’s daughter who struggled with mental illness, and recently died. You also ran for a Redding City Council seat. What else can you tell us about yourself?

Well, there’s not much to say about myself that I haven’t shared at the board meetings. I have always tried to help my friend Brenda, so we always speak, hoping we can help make sustainable changes for the underserved and unsheltered individuals that may or may not be struggling with their mental health.

Q: Your messages are consistent, that’s for sure.

Another topic you’ve talked about for quite a while now is how you and others feed unhoused individuals most Saturdays at the MLK Park. Right?

Yes, we have what I like to call a motley crew of individuals that go to MLK park every Saturday to feed individuals that struggle in life. We also feed anyone that wants to stop by and say hi and join in on the fellowship. We ask for nothing but a smile!

Q: Monique, the reason I wanted to chat with you today is because of the issue that arose this week regarding your Saturday meals in the MLK Park. If I understand things correctly, since the city was approached about getting permits and restroom keys and electrical outlet access at the MLK Park, it set off a series of requirements, primarily regarding food.

So now you and the other volunteers are stuck in the middle between wanting to feed people, and having plenty of food and volunteers to make that possible, but now you’re trying to comply with health-and-safety code restrictions, plus wanting to be good stewards of the MLK property, which I mentioned above. It’s complicated. I’ll let you explain more.

Yes, we had a robust meeting at city hall with administrators and two residents who live near the park. We were told what we are doing is great, but it has now grown exponentially, and some of the residents feel fear and concern about all the foot traffic near their homes. So, we were advised we need permits and we need to follow California state laws. That is fine, and we will do what we need to do to keep helping individuals find their lots in life. We always want to be neighborly!

Q: Speaking of neighbors, does your group ensure that the MLK Park and restrooms are presentable before you leave?

We pick up trash, we have people help us to maintain the cleanliness! We would take care of the bathrooms as well!

Q: So it sounds like the good news is that you have permits and permission to gather at the MLK Park each Saturday. But that’s not the main hurdle. The real issue relates to food safety, since a lot of the donated food is potluck style. You and your fellow helpers bring all kinds of hot and cold foods, many of which are perishable and could harbor bacteria if not kept at the right temperatures, not to mention there’s no way to regulate home-cooking conditions of donated food. It seems your current permits for the site and restroom keys are pointless if you can’t feed the people in the park, which was the whole point of your dream in the first place. So what exactly were you told about where your group stands with regard to continuing meals in the park?

Yes, we were told that they “get our hearts” to want to help people unsheltered, however; we have some stipulations now to follow. We have all the paperwork and the OK, but we need to change up what we do. They asked us to start earlier, we said no problem. They asked us to make set menus of things we can make on site as opposed to making them from home. We were advised of all the things we need to do and we are more than willing to oblige.

Q: What did you do when you learned of these new requirements?

Well, immediately I called my friend Jerry Harral, and we discussed our next steps forward. We are wholly optimistic we will get done whatever we need to do, because we have a great group of people helping us help those that find it difficult to help themselves. We have set it up with Kevin Crye, and Laura Burch, director of HHSA, to have a table with case workers to do intakes and offer resources for those that are ready to get up and out of their plight.

Q: What motivates you to keep going, and to remain optimistic in the face of such sobering news?

We love our community and we want to be neighborly in our efforts to help the underserved and unsheltered. We make no money from this, and as a matter of fact, between us all I would say 100 dollars or more is given from our very pockets to do what we do on Saturdays at MLK Park. Because we give so much, the vice mayor of Redding and his lovely wife gave us the funding for the permits to do this, and that makes our hearts swell to receive the support. It was a truly act of kindness for us, and those that depend on us every Saturday.

Q: Monique, I know readers will ask, so I’ll anticipate their questions. Would it be possible for those who want to help — especially until you get things straightened out again — to donate money so you could purchase food made in a commercial kitchen, like pizza or KFC, or something like that?

Great question Doni, thank you for asking it. Personally, I don’t like to ask for things of monetary value from people, other than to just do good for others. We would love for people to come and see what is we do every Saturday, and if someone feels compelled to help, great, we would love it. I never want anyone thinking our actions are questionable.

If you want to bring amenities, great. If you want to bring hygiene products, great! AWESOME!

Q: And what would be the biggest dream request of all?

If someone wants to donate a food truck so we can cook on site, THEN YOU ARE MY HERO! I don’t know how to fundraise, but if we could, I would fall to my knees with appreciation!

Q: A food truck would be ideal, because it’s basically a portable commercial kitchen, and it should tick all the government health-and-safety code issues. Plus, you could take it to other locations other than the MLK Park.

But back to this week’s issue and the city’s requirements. How likely is it that the red tape and health-and-safety restrictions may end your Saturday meals in the park?

I don’t foresee us being unable to do Jesus’s work. We need to be good neighbors, and do right! I just hope to see a collective unity in our community. I believe we can do this. Yes, we have stipulations. But who doesn’t?

Q: I thought you might say something like that. Monique, what else should we know?

We are an eclectic group of people that all have a back story as to why we do what we do. And after speaking for six years at the board of supervisors meetings, and at the city council meeting on Dec 24th — Christmas Eve! — all five board members helped us feed roughly 200+ people. That to me was an amazing Christmas gift, because we just want those that CAN do something to see the humanity of a broken soul. We hope to humanize and destigmatize the issues of being unhoused, and possibly mentally broken. I do know that a majority of us could end up in the same situation, all it takes is one traumatic event and then we would be broken ourselves!

Q: Thank you, Monique. I wish you and your group the best of luck.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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