LANSING – On Monday, a showdown loomed between homeless advocates and the city officials who wanted them to get a permit — and health department permission — to hand out peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches at a city park.

On Tuesday, the crisis was averted, thankfully. Otherwise, I’d have to use the word “ironic” because it’s national Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week.

After all, the sandwich effort is well-intentioned — feeding the many hungry and homeless people in our area.

Each Monday since early September, a small group of volunteers gathers at Linda Karl’s kitchen in Eaton Rapids. They make and bag 100 sandwiches, mostly peanut butter and jelly, from donated food items.

Then, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the volunteers set up tables at Reutter Park in downtown Lansing and hand out lunches. They also bring donations of winter clothing, blankets and sleeping bags to give away.

The group has been doing that since Linda Karl’s son, Mike Karl, started Cardboard Prophets in September after breaking away from another group he founded, the Homeless Angels.

There’s been no issue until last week when Linda Karl got a call from Lansing Parks & Recreation Department asking about a planned Sunday chili cookoff for the homeless in Reutter Park.

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Karl said she thought it would be a fun idea to have a competition with 20 volunteers donating chili. Then she was told that a $200 permit is needed for the event and each food giveaway event, and that it could take up to 90 days to approve.

“I said ‘Are you kidding me?’ We cannot afford $200,’” she recalled. “Apparently, to hand out clothing or anything in the park, it’s an event.”

Brett Kaschinske, director of Lansing’s Parks and Recreation, said he was asked last week by the Ingham County Health Department about the cookoff, which appeared on social media.

Kaschinske said he knew nothing about it and asked his staff to contact the Cardboard Prophets. He said it’s possible to waive the fees on events but he wanted something on paper first. Fees depend on what services from the city are needed.

“We have no application submitted to even know what kind of event they are putting on. I specifically said to Mike and his mom that we need a permit filled out so we can start the conversation,” he said Monday.

Cardboard Prophets volunteer Linda Karl of Eaton Rapids hugs Lansing Police Department Officer Tony Rodriguez, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, at Reutter Park in downtown Lansing. Rodriguez helped facilitate parking for the organization’s ARK, or Act of Random Kindness mobile home parked on East Lenawee Street that carries supplies and donations for the community. The organization set up tables with water and snacks, and brought boxes of winter clothing to give to those in need. They are stationed on the southwest corner of the park each Tuesday and Wednesday between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (Photo: Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State )

For four years, the Homeless Angels have been offering “dinner in the park” for the homeless, apparently taking the route of it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission and flying under the radar.

Kaschinske said the Angels were also contacted and asked to fill out permits after Mike Karl pointed out that the group’s been offering meals in the park for years.

Homeless Angels started the permitting process, Kaschinske said, but Cardboard Prophets didn’t, at least not at first. Instead, Mike Karl took to social media for a petition urging that nonprofits be exempt from permitting process. He had 2,400 signatures as of Tuesday.

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On Tuesday, as volunteers gathered at the park to hand out items – without a permit –  one of their volunteers, Sue Lantz, said she was urged by At-Large City Council Member Kathie Dunbar to go to the city offices and talk to Lansing Parks & Recreation.

There she was given paperwork and told that the fees would be waived. (Kaschinske said the city is willing to work with the groups feeding the homeless to waive the fees, but still wants to see the paperwork first.)

The Cardboard Prophets also skirted a confrontation over the chili cookoff Sunday, when a food truck owner from Owosso, who is licensed to prepare and serve meals, offered to take over the chili event. Linda Karl said she took the $200 that a donor offered for a permit and gave it to the food truck to make and serve chili for 150 people. Hot chocolate, chili, coffee and cookies were served. 

But that left the question open about whether sandwich-making could continue.

Amanda Darche, spokesperson for the Ingham County Health Department, said unless it’s a private event, food served must be prepared in a licensed kitchen.

“The food service standards that apply to the general public still apply to the homeless,” she said.

The Cardboard Prophet volunteers pointed out the irony of that: People can eat out of garbage cans but food donated to prevent that must be prepared in licensed kitchens.

A solution for that also materialized. Lovejoy Rehabilitation Centers on the west side of Lansing, offered the use of its licensed kitchen facilities for making of the sandwiches in the coming weeks.

On Tuesday, Lantz, Linda Karl and other volunteers set up their tables to give away items, despite the lack of a permit. No sandwiches were handed out but packaged food, including chips, nuts, granola bars, pudding cups and bottled water were given away, to 35 people. They also gave away a dozen coats and other items.

Linda Karl said she was relieved that the potential confrontation over red tape was averted.

“It enables us to continue to help the people without being a thorn in the city’s side. We just want to help the people,” she said.

Judy Putnam is a columnist with the Lansing State Journal. Contact her at (517) 267-1304 or at jputnam@lsj.com. Follow her on twitter @judyputnam.

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