An act of civil disobedience ended peacefully on Sunday afternoon (November 19th), as dozens from across the county gathered at Wells Park in El Cajon to offer food to the homeless in defiance of a new city law prohibiting the practice.
Citing the year-long hepatitis A outbreak in nearby San Diego and subsequent emergency declaration countywide, the City of El Cajon in late October adopted an emergency measure banning the sharing of food with homeless individuals at city parks. The council, in enacting the ban, clarified that the sharing of food among housed individuals attending parties or picnics is not covered under the ordinance.
Outrage quickly spread throughout the activist community, and calls to openly defy the law were taken up by a hastily arranged coalition calling itself Break the Ban.
"The Facebook response was huge, and it actually put us in touch with some homeless advocates who have been coming out here and doing this work already," said Shane Parmely, a middle-school teacher who traveled from Bonita to participate as a co-organizer. "When Mark posted news about the ban passing and asked 'Who's ready to get arrested?' immediately my response was, 'I'm in!' I have a sister-in-law with mental illness. She was at one point homeless in El Cajon before going missing for a while, when she finally calls [to rejoin the family] she had lost, like, 80 pounds due to malnutrition."
Her sister-in-law has since gone missing again.
"I hope someone's out there sharing food with her."
"If hep A was as big a concern as they're saying it is, they'd have bathrooms," insisted Mark Lane, another of the event's organizers. "It's easier to dehumanize them, criminalize them, make them throw-away people."
Lane pointed to a shuttered bathroom facility in the middle of the park that he says has been closed for months due to plumbing problems. Outside, two portable toilets sit next to a pair of drinking fountains, where soap has been placed to press them into service as makeshift sinks.
"City councilmember Ben Kalasho went on TV the other day and pretty much said 'If you care about these people so much, take them home with you and let them use your showers,'" Lane continued. "He's not addressing his duty as a councilperson to provide services for these people in his city.
"What if I passed a food-sharing ban that said you could no longer share food in public places with the LGBT community, but everyone else is okay? Have a party? Because they've dehumanized these people, they think it's okay to do exactly the same thing."
"They say that hep A is a problem, that people are defecating on the ground and the disease is everywhere, and because of that they don't want people who are homeless to be fed," Parmely added. "But everyone else can continue having their parties here, like it's safe."
About three dozen volunteers, more of whom had earlier gathered at Border X Brewing in Barrio Logan to prepare meals (publicly distributed food must be prepared in a commercial kitchen, which the brewery's restaurant donated for the morning), were on hand to distribute as many as 80 meals, along with bottled water, juice, and toiletries to any takers. Despite a high police presence — Madison Avenue fronting the park was closed and the parking lot was occupied by horse trailers used by participants in the annual Mother Goose Parade going on nearby — an hour into the food distribution, officers had yet to make contact with the group.
Other groups have vowed to continue Break the Ban's work — another El Cajon public food-sharing event is in the works for next Saturday, November 25.