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City Ruling Means Last Supper for Needy : Closing of Kitchen in Old House Gives Pastor Food for Thought

Times Staff Writer

For 2 1/2 years, Pastor Don Shuman and his followers have served weekly suppers to hungry San Diegans at their Christian SonRise Fellowship in an old Hillcrest house.

As the numbers of hungry increased in San Diego, so did the numbers seeking free meals at the 6th Avenue church. And so did the complaints from residents, who opposed the influx of transients into their increasingly upscale neighborhood.

Last month, the City of San Diego told the church to stop feeding the needy because they don’t have the right zoning permit and their kitchen doesn’t meet health standards.

Shuman responds with amazement to officials who worry about the church serving unhealthy food when many of the people he serves eat their other meals out of trash bins.

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“I’ve got a guy with me now who said he used to eat out of a McDonald’s dumpster, and he was so hungry he didn’t mind that there was a rat there eating with him,” Shuman said.

Shuman said police, fire, zoning and health officials visited SonRise last month, and that health officials closed the kitchen May 15. The non-denominational Christian church had been serving meals on Wednesday nights and one Sunday a month.

City officials say that, to serve meals more than once a month, the church must apply for a special use permit from the city Planning Commission, which requires a public hearing.

Shuman said it would cost at least $20,000 to bring the kitchen up to health department standards, but that the one-story house is so old “the building department probably wouldn’t let us.” He said health officials said the kitchen must have two sinks instead of one, a higher ceiling, a different floor covering, a hood over the stove, no bathroom entrance off the kitchen, and myriad other changes.

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Bill Voge, an attorney advising Shuman, said the notice of zoning violation charges that SonRise is feeding large numbers of people and using the building for “not a church use.”

“I am unclear about what they felt was not a church use,” Voge said, adding that he is unable to get an answer from zoning officials, as they do not return his phone calls.

Shuman said he has stopped serving food and started “praying and waiting” to see how he can continue to do what he sees as the Lord’s work.

“The Book of Matthew says if a person is hungry you feed him, if a person is thirsty you give him something to drink, if a person is naked you give him clothes. All we’re trying to do is comply with the Bible,” Shuman said.

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But he said the Bible also says not to break the rules of the land, so he will look for a legal way to resume feeding the poor.

“As the Lord moved us out of the house, we will have to wait until He shows us which direction to go now. We just want to serve,” Shuman said.

There are about 2,000 to 3,000 homeless people in San Diego and, according to a report by the mayor’s task force issued this year, one of the major needs for them and for newly hired poor people is food.

Social service workers who assist the poor and homeless say that one of their biggest barriers to confronting the problem is people’s attitude toward what they see as an undesirable population.

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Voge said he believes the whole issue is “just to keep the poor and homeless and transients away from the neighborhood.”

The investigation into SonRise began, according to Jane Reid, an aide to Councilman Uvaldo Martinez, after Martinez’s office received complaints from Hillcrest residents about increased numbers of transients in the area.

“There are a number of elderly people there who were frightened and concerned,” Reid said. “If you lived up there, you’d think it was a problem they have a good reason (to complain about). They have to wash their sidewalks every day because of the presents they find in the morning, and they’re not from people’s dogs.”

Reid said she asked the city manager’s office to check out the complaints and they, in turn, sent the inquiry to the health and zoning departments.

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“They found them (the church) to be in violation of zoning regulations . . . They don’t have a conditional use permit to serve that number of meals that often,” she said.

She said that, under the current commercial zoning, the church may serve meals once a month.

“But they also weren’t meeting the health codes. There is a danger of the people becoming ill, because there is no quality control,” Reid said.

When asked about Shuman’s assertion that many of the people he feeds are eating out of trash bins, she said, “As long as you have an entity, it’s subject to the law . . . You can’t sue a . . . dumpster.”

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If SonRise wants to continue to serve the needy, she said, “All they have to do is comply.”

Shuman said this is the second time he has had trouble with neighbors and city officials. He said SonRise began as a Bible study group in his Tierrasanta home, but was forced to move 2 1/2 years ago after neighbors complained that he was holding weekly meetings there.

Shuman said city officials told him his residence was not zoned for “habitual” meetings, so he moved the church to its Hillcrest location.

Shuman and SonRise made headlines last Christmas when they raised thousands of dollars to feed the poor and homeless for three days in the downtown Civic Center.

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