Two wrongs and a right

December 18, 2005

Telling a bunch of college kids they could no longer deliver food to Baltimore's homeless because they lack the required permit sounds like bureaucracy at its bureaucratic best. The volunteers from Loyola deserved a public service award, not a cease-and-desist order.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city's new health commissioner, won't argue with that. The flap over Loyola's Center for Values and Service program landed on his desk his third day on the job. He set out to fix it.

The Loyola Care-A-Van has been delivering food to the homeless for a decade, working from War Memorial Plaza until it became a construction site. The students then moved their deliveries to a small park near St. Vincent DePaul Church, a couple of blocks from City Hall. That's where a city health worker found them last month and immediately shut down the operation because the students were violating a state law that requires food preparers to have running water on site. The college withdrew use of its van and other support until the matter could be resolved. But the kids persevered - feeding the homeless on their own.

Dr. Sharfstein recognized the students' commitment. But more important, he recognized that the city was wrong not to give the students a warning. He wanted to resolve the matter by enlisting the kids' help in getting city services to the homeless they feed. As of Friday, the Loyola students agreed to Dr. Sharfstein's proposal. They will choose one of the city's 15 outreach sites from which to work and until then, the Loyola van will resume its good work.

Dr. Sharfstein made the right call. He saw the students as advocates, not opponents. And he wasn't afraid to admit the city erred or to get personally involved in a dispute, both assets in managing a city agency as large and complex as the city health department.

The students may have prepared a sandwich or two on site that ran them afoul of the law. But the city needn't have come down so harshly on them; this wasn't a rowdy frat party. Dr. Sharfstein deftly turned an old adage on its head. Who says two wrongs can't make a right?

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