Posted: Jan 31, 2006 4:10 pm
Kitchen is closed, group told
Police shut down free meals in park
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
By Jeff Duncan
The New Orleans Welcome Home Kitchen isn't finding New Orleans very welcoming.
The nomadic group of free-spirited do-gooders was told to shut down its grass-roots relief operation Monday for the second time since it invaded post-Katrina New Orleans.
New Orleans Police Department officers interrupted the group's lunch line Monday at Easton Park in Mid-City to issue a cease and desist order and ask the group to decamp city property immediately.
As officers monitored the scene, the band of a dozen or so volunteers clad in flip-flops and T-shirts grudgingly uprooted their bivouac of tents and tarpaulins in the corner end zone of the park at St. Peters and Rendon streets.
"We thought the police were coming to each lunch," said Lillie Antoine, one of a handful of community members who had just sat down to eat. "We thought, 'Oh good. The police know about this place, too.' We never thought they were here to shut it down. Why would they want to do that?"
The kitchen is an offshoot of several loosely affiliated civic groups that converged on New Orleans and set up camp amid the debris after the storm. The rag-tag collection of tattooed punk rockers, post-graduate migrants and disenfranchised street urchins operates on donations from similarly inclined organizations like Common Ground, Food Not Bombs, Barefoot Doctors and the Rainbow Family of Living Light. They distribute cleaning supplies and serve three meals a day -- heralded by the blast of a conch shell -- to neighbors, relief workers and anyone who happens upon the open-air commune.
"This is a good thing they're doing here, and now the city wants to shut it down," said Ruby Johnson, 55, a counselor and eastern New Orleans resident who returned to New Orleans from Houston two weeks ago. "This gives you initiative to come home and do your part in the recovery. Why shut something down that's good?"
NOPD spokesman David Adams said officers were responding to a complaint from a neighbor. Adams said he didn't know the nature of the complaint or when it was filed.
"They can't just set up shop on city property and operate without the proper permits," Adams said. "This is the same group that was warned once before. It's a health issue."
A meeting between kitchen volunteers and city officials is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at City Hall to resolve the issue, kitchen volunteer Ryan "Deano" Dean said.
"I can't believe that one complaint from someone in the neighborhood warrants this," said Dean, a licensed electrician from Chicago, who has worked with the group since it established a base in New Orleans in early October. "If this was the feeling of the majority of the community, we'd leave without a complaint. It doesn't make sense to me."
This is the second time the group has been forced to evacuate city property. Two weeks ago, it was evicted from its original camp in Washington Square Park after a failed health inspection.
"We were constantly harassed down there," said Ken Wooten, 35, a volunteer worker from New Orleans. "But we were planning to leave anyway. We had become a service of convenience instead of a service of need."
Adams said the city is appreciative of the group's efforts -- but rules are rules.
"You can't just disregard city laws and do what you want to do," Adams said.
Robert Thompson, owner of the nearby Fair Grinds Coffee House, said such groups fill a vital role in the recovery effort that established organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army can't.
"This positive energy is so vital to the recovery effort," Thompson said. "Only this kind of grass-roots mission is having a real impact. It's a real psychological lift for the community."
Antoine and Johnson stumbled upon the enclave by accident while visiting a relative's home earlier this week. They've been regulars ever since.
"We've been through so much already. It's hard," said Antoine, 51, a Charity Hospital assistant who lost her home in the storm and only recently returned to New Orleans from exile in Tulsa, Okla. "These people are trying to help, and now the city is going to run them out of here? The mayor said to come home, but to what? I don't want this kind of abuse. This kind of thing is just pushing us out of here."
In adherence to police orders, the kitchen temporarily moved its operation to a house on Toulouse Street. They hope to be back in business today, either at Easton Park or another location, after today's meeting at City Hall.
"We came to help people of this community," said Samu Sefu, 25, a volunteer worker from Hawaii. "These people need us. This community needs us. It's disappointing."
. . . . . . .