Should a soup kitchen be allowed to move next door to an elementary school? That’s one question Southington is dealing with right now.
Bread for Life, a reputable soup kitchen and food pantry, served about 35,000 meals last year to poor, homeless or homebound clients in town. It has applied to the Planning and Zoning Commission to move to a site next to Derynoski School. The Board of Education opposes the move.
After receiving adverse comments from residents — some of them parents, some of them suggesting that the “strangers” who come to the soup kitchen might be “dangerous” — the PZC put off a decision and asked for input from the Police Department, which then conducted surveillance of Bread for Life’s free-lunch operation on two occasions.
The police reported that: (a.) 15 to 23 people showed up for meals, (b.) one of them was a registered sex offender, (c.) some of the people remained at the site after being served lunch and (d.) police had received one complaint of an intoxicated person at that location in nearly five years (although the board chairman says Bread for Life was not at that address when the call was made.)
While the safety of children must be the paramount consideration, here are some additional questions raised by these recent developments, in no particular order:
• People hang around after church services and chat outside grocery stores; this is normal human behavior — unless they’re poor, in which case it becomes “loitering.” Is it reasonable to expect that Bread for Life can feed up to 23 people and then get them all off the property within a tight, 45-minute lunch session? Is it even humane?
• Zoning issues are normally decided on the basis of zoning regulations. Under what circumstances, if any, can the PZC apply other standards, beyond an obvious concern such as traffic safety?
• Could the commission request a police report before approving a house of worship? If so, would it under any circumstances do so?
• If the commission is empowered to request police surveillance of a charitable organization before making a zoning decision, can it also request a police report on a private business, such as a restaurant?
• If the police reported that one of that restaurant’s customers, on one day, was a registered sex offender (at this writing there are 32 registered sex offenders in Southington), could the commission take that into account in making a zoning decision?
• Can a restaurant or other business be expected to investigate its customers’ criminal records, if any? Can a charitable group be expected to do the same?
• Is the PZC aware that some people are on the sex-offender list for offenses that had nothing to do with children? And that people on that list are not necessarily restricted to certain parts of town?
• If the commission requests a police report on an applicant, should it be required to inform the applicant? And should the applicant be given an opportunity to study the report and respond to it before it is released to the public?
Perhaps the information session set for 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at Town Hall will provide some answers.