ST. PETERSBURG — It's still bright outside when the hungry start to line up along Mirror Lake to wait for the Chicken Man to bring them their dinner.
Don McClendon and his wife, Barbara, have delivered free meals to the homeless here four nights a week for nearly nine years. The heavy plates come stocked with vegetables, bread and McClendon's namesake entree: chicken. Always chicken.
"If they are hungry, we have an obligation to feed them," McClendon said.
But McClendon's days as the Chicken Man could be numbered.
City officials say the public feeding of homeless and other low-income people has gotten out of hand, and they are looking to limit the practice, especially in downtown St. Petersburg, where business owners, residents and tourists complain that do-gooders are only attracting more homeless people to the area by feeding them.
"We have ongoing calls from people downtown who say this is interfering with their businesses and their lives," said Rhonda Abbott, the city's social services manager.
During an August meeting, the City Council directed the city's legal department to look into banning public feeding.
City Attorney Mark Winn warned that it would be difficult for the city to take any action that would not affect other residents who choose to eat outside.
"If you write an ordinance that says no feeding in the park, you can't take your family on a picnic because that is feeding. You can't feed your boyfriend grapes in the park," he said. "These people are basically doing conduct that everyone does. It just happens to be that some people find these folks offensive."
Public feeding is not by any means a new issue.
City Council members have attempted to limit the practice for years, with little success.
Most recently, City Hall kicked off the "Give a Hand Up, Not a Hand Out" education campaign in January, which consisted of fliers advising residents to redirect panhandlers to local shelters.
There are at least four soup kitchens within walking distance of downtown St. Petersburg, where many of the city's homeless tend to congregate, said Abbott.
The needy can get safe meals in a clean environment at those locations, she said. It is difficult to gauge whether food given out in public meets state health regulations.
"It could be unsafe for them," she said.
Some homeless advocates fear that this is City Hall's latest effort to criminalize the destitute. In recent months, the city has passed several ordinances that limit sleeping and storing personal items in public places.
"It's very difficult for some people to get down to St. Vincent de Paul's or the Salvation Army. If you are not physically in shape, it's hard to get down there," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.
Even if the city bans public feeding, "there are still going to be a lot of people who don't go to shelters and don't go to soup kitchens," she said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]