The sisters of the Missionaries of Charity will continue to feed the poor at the Miami soup kitchen established more than 30 years ago by Mother Teresa.
Two days after it was first reported that the city had accused the nuns of the Missionaries of Charity of violating city codes by not obtaining a permit to distribute food, several city officials announced Thursday that they had no intention of shutting down their operations.
“I’m not going to close that place,” said Miami Code Compliance Director Orlando Diez. “If this is not resolved by [Friday], they will have the certificate of use they need on Monday.”
It is still unclear whether the nuns actually need a permit to distribute food to the poor. Thursday afternoon, a lawyer representing the nuns at no charge delivered documents to the city of Miami showing that they had obtained a special permit in 1982 to carry out their work.
“In either event, the activities of the nuns and mission will not be interfered with,” said Tom Equels, who represents the nuns together with his wife, Laura. “It’s very important to both of us that the mission and the purpose of the mission established by Mother Teresa be honored or continued.”
After it was reported Wednesday in El Nuevo Herald that the city had issued a warning to the Missionaries of Charity, Diez said, his office received dozens of calls. But the issue had attracted the interest of several city officials and community leaders for months.
It started with a series of complaints from neighbors of the mission at 724 NW 17th St. Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort said that many residents of the Claude Pepper Tower, a public housing complex for the elderly, called his office to complain about the lines of homeless people who wait every day to eat there.
“What many people do not understand is that it gets very aggressive, that there are 300 people blocking the sidewalk, and that many residents of Claude Pepper are afraid of the homeless,” said Gort, who represents the district.
Frank Castañeda, a member of Gort’s staff, presented the complaints as well as videos and photos of the lines through several emails sent to Diez and other city officials. Castañeda asked to respond to the complaints of neighbors who had already accepted living next to Camillus House, a homeless shelter and service provider that relocated to a new facility a block from the nuns’ mission last summer.
Paul Ahr, president of Camillus House, explained that the move of his shelter from downtown Miami to Allapattah has dramatically reduced the number of places where homeless people can receive daily meals. At its previous location, Camillus House fed more than 300 homeless people every day.
“When we were authorized to operate as a rescue mission on that site, conditions of approval were that we not continue our street-feeding program,” said Ahr. “The main concern was that we were moving from an industrial area to a residential area and the city commissioners who approved the decision did not want us to recreate the long lines of people waiting to get a meal.”
Camillus House currently feeds only the homeless who participate in its programs or sleep in their shelters. Ahr expressed his solidarity with the Missionaries of Charity and said that if the city granted permission, he was willing to feed the homeless who now depend on the nuns.
The complaints against the nuns also came from the leaders of Jackson Memorial Hospital, which controls several properties in the vicinity.
The participation of a Jackson official in the conversations about the mission’s alleged code violations prompted speculation about the hospital’s interest in the property.
A hospital spokesman said Thursday afternoon that there was no basis for that speculation.
“We haven’t even given any thought on whether we want that property,” said Edwin O’Dell. “That is not even on our radar.”
“We have a campus here where we’re trying to attract paying patients and we have to do something about code violations that take place at Jackson Health System and adjacent to our properties,” O’Dell said.