This week, a special committee meeting aimed at solving ongoing problems at Hemming Park resulted in the decision to add a few new park regulations.
Some of the new rules being proposed are reasonable. These include a ban on alcohol when no special event is going on, and a requirement of wearing a shirt and shoes when in the park area.
However, one of the recommended regulations is causing a bit of a stir among locals.
The rule in question would require anyone wanting to give food to a homeless person on park grounds to first obtain a permit to do so. It managed to remain in the final list of regulations despite objections during previous committee meetings.
The intent behind these new regulations is clear, and understandable. Hemming Park has for years struggled with issues of vagrancy and public image. The park already has a questionable reputation in the eyes of many longtime Jacksonville residents, who have seen several failed attempts at bringing life to the area. The perception of the park as a hang-out spot for the city’s homeless population has only compounded that problem.
However, in recent years the park has become a home for several of downtown’s most enjoyable events, such as the monthly Art Walk. These events have been able to thrive even in spite of the vagrancy issues, which are by no means limited to Hemming Park. In fact, the highest concentration of homeless people in downtown Jacksonville is actually at the nearby Main Street Park.
Despite this, many residents – mostly older, conservative ones – still refuse to frequent the park because of the perceived homeless issue.
Some are saying the idea of creating regulations to make it harder for people to feed the homeless is a step too far. And while the rule would only apply to Hemming Park, it could set a dangerous precedent for similar rules to be created elsewhere.
Jacksonville has always had a thorny relationship with homelessness. Many residents complain about the number of homeless people downtown, but they’ll then complain just as loud when any public money is dedicated to tackling the homelessness problem. Some people are so caught up in their steadfast beliefs about personal accountability that they lose track of the fact that these are actually fellow human beings.
The vast majority of Jacksonville residents are warmhearted and do truly want to help these people. Unfortunately, good Samaritans are often discouraged by those in the vocal minority who shame them for giving away their extra food. Meanwhile, the homeless are the ones who have to suffer.
The list of new regulations must still be approved by a vote from city council. If the city actually approves the plan, it will only empower those few residents who feel the need to tell others not to give away food to the homeless. It’ll also make those who give away food feel as though they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing.
Most importantly, it won’t actually do anything to curb the homeless presence at Hemming Park.
The committee seems to be missing the bigger picture. They’re assuming the reason homeless people stick around is because people might give them food if they stay there long enough. In reality, the reason there are homeless people hanging out at Hemming Park at night is because they’re homeless. There’s not a whole lot of places for them to go, and the park is well-lit and relatively safe for them.
Basically, the Hemming Park committee wants to solve their homeless problem, not the city’s homeless problem. If the city wants to actually get serious about curbing the homeless problem at Hemming Park, it needs less of these new rules and more investment into programs designed to help those who need it the most.
Until then, these committees can come up with all the absurd, inhumane rules they want. All it will do is make the city look clueless.