For the past three years, Mike Brendale and a score of volunteers have served up free Sunday lunch across the street from Dorothy Day Place in downtown St. Paul.
That is, until police shut them down a couple weeks ago, citing snarled traffic, illegal parking and litter as persistent problems.
Now Brendale's Feeding St. Paul, which fed as many as 200 mostly homeless people each week, is on pause as he weighs next steps. A special event permit, along with security, that Brendale said the city told him he needed would cost $260 a week. City officials were unable to confirm that price.
"We're trying to regroup, trying to figure out a new plan," Brendale said. "Right now, we're hoping we can find private property to do this."
Police say they had little choice but to step in. Cars were stopping and illegally parking at the site across the street from Dorothy Day, blocking bus lanes. Diners were crossing the street in front of the Catholic Charities complex, creating a traffic hazard.
And garbage from the meals has been regularly left behind, said Jesse Mollner, a district commander with St. Paul Police.
"We fully support these activities," Mollner said. "But it needs to be safe, follow ordinances and comply with rules."
Mollner added that he's been talking to Brendale for months about the rising complaints.
"You need to be responsible for every piece of your operation," Mollner said. "It's just a bad spot to do this."
Brendale acknowledged police have shared concerns about traffic, saying, "We messed up." But he said he's frustrated by the focus on regulations instead of feeding the hungry.
Soon after Brendale announced the shutdown on the group's Facebook page, he got into an online back-and-forth with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who defended the police action.
"I understand you did have a food permit from the state, but without applying for an event permit from the city our officers had no way of knowing the event was occurring," Carter wrote. "You can see people in the street as cars are going by; obviously that's dangerous — that's the type of thing the city permit process is designed to prevent."
Brendale responded: "Special event permits and fees are around $13,520 for 52 weeks Melvin Carter. As a grassroots community group how is that possible for us to do!!!!!!!!!"
Ideally, Brendale said, he would like to partner with Dorothy Day Place, maybe operating out of its parking lot.
Asked if Feeding St. Paul's traffic and trash created problems at Dorothy Day, Keith Kozerski, Catholic Charities chief program officer, issued a statement:
"We support Feeding St. Paul's mission and dedication to serving people in need. Over the past few years, we have engaged in conversations about the safety challenges present at their current service location, and we appreciate their efforts to improve operations," he said. "[They] have previously expressed interest in identifying alternative venues for their weekly meals, and we hope they are able to secure a location and permits that allow them to safely serve St. Paul residents from across the city who are experiencing food insecurity."
A humble start
Brendale, whose day job is digging in-ground swimming pools, lives in White Bear Lake with his wife and children, who range in age from two months to 16. He said the idea to provide free meals began one morning.
"I woke up thinking I needed to do something for the city I grew up in," he said.
He posted a question on Facebook asking for ideas. The answer was feeding the homeless. On a Sunday three years ago, Brendale, his wife and kids headed to an encampment by the Mississippi River to serve burgers, hot dogs, chips and sodas. A week later, the encampment was gone. They've been serving across from Dorothy Day ever since.
Brendale gets food from Cub Foods and Costco. He also buys 30 pizzas every Sunday. Each week, he said, he spends close to $200.
Mary Patten, who lives in Eagan, learned about Feeding St. Paul about a year ago after the group asked for volunteers to cook and bring side dishes. She and some friends answered the call, also bringing clothing, hats and gloves to give away.
"Every time I go down there, there's been about 100 people there," she said. "I don't think they're blocking traffic. It might get a little congested there. But I'm gone in less than five minutes; most of the people are too."
Brendale said he's waiting to decide what to do next, adding that he's heard nothing more from the city or Catholic Charities. He said he hopes a compromise can be found.
"I just wanted to do something to give back," Brendale said.