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St. Louis permit issue halts hot food for homeless

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A St. Louis street ministry is being forced to stop providing hot meals to the homeless, at least for now.

The city Health Department on Monday told organizers of the ministry known as Churches on the Streets that it doesn't have a permit to serve hot food, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

The edict came a day after the ministry was featured in a page-one Post-Dispatch story. Churches on the Streets has provided home-cooked meals, clothing and supplies to the homeless for more than a year. Before each meal, Edward Gonnella, a recovered crack addict and ex-convict known as "Pastor Paul," delivers brief sermons in the hopes of getting the homeless off the streets.

Organizers thought they didn't need a permit because members had been meeting on private property. Pat Mahoney, an environmental health supervisor for the health department, said prepackaged meals can be distributed without a permit, but not hot food.

"They're doing a good thing, they really are," Mahoney said. "It's because they're serving the public. The moment you start inviting the public to attend, that's when we get into it."

She said the department was unaware of the group's Monday night gatherings until the Post-Dispatch article.

Gonnella said the turkey pot pie and salmon bow-tie pasta that the group had already prepared for Monday was stored. The homeless were still fed -- volunteers passed out food bags with fruit and packaged items such as crackers and yogurt.

Group organizer Angela Valdes said buying food permits may be too costly for Churches on the Streets. The ministry relies on donated goods from food pantries, restaurants and grocers. Annual permit fees range from $130 to more than $300.

"We just want to help people," Valdes said. "The food is really to draw people in."

Valdes' husband, Ralph, a Churches on the Streets founder, said not being able to serve hot food won't keep the group from its mission to serve the street homeless.

"If we're not going out where God has called us to do and to go beyond this camp, we will die," Ralph Valdes said. "The vision will die. The calling will not be fulfilled."

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