Seven months have passed since a program that feeds the homeless became homeless itself, but the founder of So Others May Eat is vowing to continue her mission.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise,” said Tresha Souza, looking over the park at Bonita Cove near the Bahia Resort on Mission Bay, where volunteers in her program set up tables just after noon on Tuesday as a long line of hungry people formed.
She estimates about 120 people gather for the weekly meals at the park. For about a decade, she had organized meals at area churches where she worked with a large team of volunteers. Internal disagreements and concerns about the spread of hepatitis A during an outbreak last year resulted in the churches cutting the program.
Souza has kept it going with about 10 core volunteers, operating one of the largest outdoor food-sharing programs in the county out of a truck that hauls a portable grill.
After the truck arrived Tuesday, volunteers set up tables and began laying out plates of chicken, slices of red velvet cake, salads and side dishes that Souza said were donated by a large company that wants to remain anonymous.
“I remember one time I came here and they were serving tri-tip steaks,” said Jaime Garcia, 24, who has been homeless about two and a half years. “Dude, it was beastly.”
Souza said she sees mostly positives in the move outdoors.
“God ended up opening this amazing door,” she said. “We’re at the bay. We’re outside. I don’t have to clean up chairs or tables or bathrooms. We come in, we take off, and it’s all good.”
The roots of So Others May Eat date back to 2008, when Souza helped in a small program that served home-cooked dinners at Sacred Heart Church in Ocean Beach.
She expanded the program by recruiting companies to donate food, and in 2009 she brought it to Mary Star of the Sea in La Jolla, where her son attended school.
The program became an official nonprofit at the church. Souza recalled that the person who helped her with the paperwork asked why she was doing it, and she said, “So others may eat,” giving the program a name.
The nonprofit had some ups and downs over the year. Souza said it expanded in 2010 to St. Brigid Parish in Pacific Beach, but ended a year later after a falling out with the church. It also was at a Baptist Church in Clairemont, but petered out after about two years.
Souza said her relationship at Sacred Heart began to fall apart last October when she learned the church had an appreciation dinner for volunteers in the program without telling her or recognizing So Others May Eat. She said the church severed its relationship with the program after she complained the nonprofit was being slighted, which she felt could have jeopardized its ability to get grants.
A more public division happened about two weeks later, when Mary Star of the Sea canceled dinners that had been held at the church for seven years. At the time, the Rev. Jim Rafferty at the church said the decision was made because of ongoing renovations at the church hall and concerns about the spread of hepatitis A, which had largely affected the homeless population.
City officials, service providers and others have criticized food-sharing programs for enabling people to live on their own without connecting with agencies that could find them housing and help in overcoming issues related to their homelessness.
Souza, however, said she does not judge the people she is feeding and does not believe they should be required to work with agencies just to eat.
“We shouldn’t hold food as a hostage for services,” she said. “Not everyone here is looking for services. Not everybody’s looking for housing. I’m not here to judge. I’m just here to give back what I can give back.”
She also said no one should assume that the people she feeds have not sought help from larger nonprofits or have no contact with them. Many of the people in the park have worked with other agencies, and representatives from the Alpha Project, Father Joe’s Villages, the Salvation Army and Veterans Village have come to the park to talk with people on meal days, she said.
Several of the people in the park Tuesday, however, said they’re disillusioned with or have given up on some service providers.
“I’ve been to Father Joe’s and I’ve jumped through all of their hoops,” said Michael Shiflett, 52, who has been homeless two years. “I can’t get the services I need.”
Shiflett is under treatment for colon cancer. He said his doctor told him he needs rest and can’t work, but he also has been told his condition isn’t serious enough to get disability benefits.
He said he declined a bed at Father Joe’s because they would let him in with his dog, although a representative from the group said pets now are accepted.
Shiflett said he’s grateful for So Others May Eat and other feeding programs he frequents.
“I thank God every day that they do this, because if they didn’t, we’re going to starve to death,” he said.
Mary Roiz-McArthy, 66, has lived in a van for one and a half years and occasionally relies on So Others May Eat for meals
“I do appreciate it this month,” she said about the meals, adding that work on her van and new tires had set her back.
Relying on food at the park, however, does not mean Roiz-McArthy has shunned help from other programs. She lived for more than 20 years in an apartment that was subsidized with a section eight housing voucher, but she moved into her van when her rent was raised and she couldn’t find another place.
She also has filled out a form known as the VI-SPDAT, or Vulnerability Index - Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, which is used to access homeless people for placement into housing.
So far, nothing has come of it, she siad.
Souza said she’s heard similar stories from people in the park.
“I can’t tell you how many of my people go down there,” she said, referring to agencies in downtown San Diego. “Those services aren’t available. They say the’re all available. No, they’re not. They’re very particular (about) who can get those services.”
Donald Allgood, 48, is homeless and said no one has ever told him about a VI-SPDAT, and he also had been turned down at Father Joe’s Villages,
“I heard there’s a waiting list there,” he said.
Allgood moved to San Diego from Oklahoma in 2016 in search of construction work and better weather, but his eyes began to fail.
Gary Knapp, a volunteer with So Others May Eat for five years, took Allgood to Father Joe’s Village in search of help, but said he found they focused only on people they were housing. He took Allgood under his wing, helped him get a California identification card and medical insurance that paid for eye surgery that restored his vision.
Souza said she would like to see more cooperation among agencies that help the homeless.