On Thursday, June 29, Lisa Levsen spent her morning the same way she always does five days of the week: feeding the hungry at Washington Jefferson Park.
Levsen and her crew had tables lining the sidewalk with a buffet-style breakfast. The menu consisted of chili mac and cheese with a corn side dish, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and milk, with packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for later. Levsen greeted her regulars warmly as she scooped a heaping pile of chili mac on their plates.
“No, that’s too much,” one man said. Levsen ignored his humility and continued to pile on the food. She says she hears that sentiment often.
Formerly known as the Eugene Catholic Worker, the Breakfast Brigade has been serving meals every Wednesday through Saturday morning at Washington Jefferson Park for nearly 10 years. But recently the group’s efforts have come under fire from the city with unclear reasons as to why Breakfast Brigade can’t feed Eugene’s hungry.
As the Breakfast Brigade’s usual crowd went through the line, Levsen noticed the police approaching them. “They told us we needed a permit to be here, and that if we come out tomorrow we will be cited and if we come out the next day we will be arrested,” Levsen says.
Frightened by the threat but unwilling to back down, Levsen and her crew stood beside their tables in disbelief as to why the police would want to shut them down.
A week later, men calling themselves Neighborhood Service Officers (NSO) approached the Breakfast Brigade and chalked their vehicles.
Kelly McIver, communications manager for the city’s unhoused response, says that the NSOs are parking enforcement staff who address reported complaints related to vehicles parked longer than regulations allow.
Eugene police spokesperson Melinda Mclaughlin says she had never heard of them. In addition to threatening the group with citations and arrest, the NSOs also chalked the group’s tires. The city as a rule has generally moved away from chalking tires, instead opting for a digital system that records a photo of the rear license plate.
“We’ve been serving the homeless for nine years, now all of the sudden we’re criminals,” fellow Breakfast Brigade member Jan Zoll says.
Originally started by Charles Smith, known in the community as Brother Charlie, the Eugene Catholic Worker began in 2013 by giving away oatmeal and coffee once or twice a week at Fifth and Washington.
“When I moved to Eugene, I was just planning on volunteering here and there,” Brother Charlie says. “But I saw a need for outreach, especially on the streets.”
Soon after Catholic Worker’s food delivery inception, Brother Charlie collaborated with Zoll and started serving hot meals in addition to coffee and oatmeal four to five times a week. After Brother Charlie retired in 2022 due to health reasons, the breakfast group affiliated with a separate group feeding the unhoused, the Burrito Brigade, taking on the name Breakfast Brigade.
According to Levsen, Breakfast Brigade serves around 917 hot meals and 649 lunches per month. Many of the people who come through Levsen’s line tell her that the Breakfast Brigade is their main source of food throughout the week.
“I love these people,” says a regular attendee, Josh, who did not give his last name out of fear of police retaliation. “These people make my week.”
Brother Charlie says about five years into the operation, the city started taking issue with the group. The police told them to move to a less visible area in Washington Jefferson Park, so in 2018 the group relocated to the north end of the park near the WJ Skatepark on First and Washington. After the pandemic, resistance from the city only increased.
Levsen says the list of demands from the city, especially after the pandemic, got longer. “We were told to stop using the trash cans in the park, so we placed cardboard over the trash cans to pack in and out. We were told to not park in the grass so we parked on the street. We were told we can’t be under the overpass anymore because it’s parks property, so we moved to the sidewalk,” Levsen says.
The group continued to comply with the city’s demands until October 2022, when the Parks and Open Space division said a valid permit was needed in order to serve meals at Washington Jefferson Park. When the Breakfast Brigade members asked the city how to apply for a permit, they were told no such permit exists.
Kelly Shadwick, outreach manager for Parks and Open Space wrote in a Feb. 10 email to Levsen, “The City does not provide permits for any activities in Washington Jefferson Park at this time.”
“It’s hard enough as a volunteer to do what we do, but then to have to negotiate with the city just to let us help people — it’s exhausting,” Levsen says.
The group had a permit from January 2021 to June 2022, but that was before the city spent $1.2 million dollars on reconstruction for the park after it was used as a temporary stay in place shelter for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The park re-opened in June.
After numerous emails back and forth between the Breakfast Brigade and Shadwick, Parks and Open Space offered the Breakfast Brigade a space at the Eugene Municipal Court at 11th and Lincoln. But in early December 2022, the court said that wouldn’t work due to a lack of “space and resources,” according to court administrator Sarah Callegeri.
In the Feb. 10 email exchange, Shadwick wrote to Levsen, “While we are supportive overall of your mission and tremendous work, we are once again in a position of needing to let you know that food distribution is not a permitted activity in Washington Jefferson Park.”
Shadwick later said the city is concerned with liability issues around safety as well as turf and landscaped areas being damaged, and that the city does not provide permits for any activities in Washington Jefferson Park.
“We don’t want to relocate,” Levsen says. “We want to serve the people we have been serving for the past 10 years.”
McIver says the decision to not let Breakfast Brigade remain at the park is complaint driven. “We get feedback from people saying they would rather not use the park because they don’t feel welcome or that they can only be there if they are there for the food giveaway,” he says.
After the most recent encounter with Neighborhood Service Officers, the Breakfast Brigade is trying to either get a permit that allows them to be at Washington Jefferson or find a space near the park that lets them serve.
McIver says the city has had trouble helping the group find a place for them to serve because, “We’re waiting for the right people to be here at the right time to sit down and find a solution because, as of right now, serving at the park is not an allowable activity.”
This wouldn’t be the first time a city has tried to stop an organization from feeding the homeless. Across the country, city governments have cracked down on where and when groups can provide such meals. In May, the religious group Micah’s Way sued the city of Santa Ana, California, under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 to continue feeding the hungry. RLUIPA protects religious groups and individuals from zoning and landmark laws that would otherwise prohibit them from gathering.
After EW spoke with McIver, he reached out to Levsen to let her know that while serving food in the park is not allowed, “Burrito Brigade” will not be cited or arrested. “City staff may continue to ask the group to modify activities as necessary for safety, access or sanitation concerns in the area,” he adds.
Levsen says she was dissatisfied by this response not only because she fears that city staff will continue policing them, but also because McIver misidentified the group as “Burrito Brigade.”
Levsen and other members of the Breakfast Brigade say they will continue to feed the homeless in the park and plan to speak at the July 24 Eugene City Council meeting.
Brother Charlie says he remains optimistic that the Breakfast Brigade will persist. “It’s our obligation to take care of our brothers and sisters no matter the consequences,” he says. “We will be persecuted, as demonstrated across the country, but I do believe the law is on our side.” ν
For more on the work of Breakfast Brigade, find them on Facebook. Burrito Brigade can be reached at BurritoBrigade.org.
This story has been updated to reflect it was the Eugene police who originally approached Levsen, and the NSO appeared a week later.