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Benno’s Kitchen Feeling Heat : Wandering Transients Create Oceanside Rift

Times Staff Writer

Every evening at 5, car salesman Jim Biggie watches them pass--a slow-moving stream of vagabonds headed for a free, hot supper at Brother Benno’s Kitchen.

An hour later, stomachs full, the parade of homeless meanders by again, often weaving a path through the shiny new cars Biggie sells at Ocean AMC Jeep.

The bolder transients, “drunk and carrying sacks of rags,” amble into the showroom and panhandle, Biggie said. He even has seen a few of “the characters” urinating on a wall just beyond his office window.

Convinced that the transients are hurting sales at the South Hill Street dealership, Biggie has devised a deterrent of sorts: When homeless people stray onto the lot, he grabs a thick lead pipe and moves menacingly toward them.

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“They usually get the message,” the salesman said.

His tactics may chase off a few street people, but Biggie and neighboring businessmen with complaints about the homeless agree that the problem needs a more permanent solution. They believe the answer is to boot Brother Benno’s soup kitchen out of the neighborhood.

“It’s gotta go,” said Steve Mares, owner of Mares Body Shop, situated on an alley about a block from the kitchen. “That place is a magnet for the bums, and the bums are scaring off my customers. . . . I’ve got nothing against helping the poor, but they shouldn’t be doing it downtown.”

Recently, Mares began circulating a petition aimed at persuading the City Council to relocate the kitchen, which opened in October, 1983, and every night serves as many as 150 men, women and children--more than half of them homeless.

The petition, so far signed by about a dozen business owners, describes the kitchen as a “serious threat to our livelihoods and safety” and requests that it be relocated “to an area in which the fallout from its clientele will not adversely affect other citizens.”

If council members decline to take action, Mares said, he and several fellow merchants will file a class-action suit against the city on grounds that the kitchen is hindering their efforts to make a profit.

Despite such sentiment, owners of those businesses closest to Brother Benno’s endorse its mission and would like to see the facility remain downtown.

They concede that fights occasionally erupt among some unruly transients waiting in line, but the merchants add that overall they have no complaints about the soup kitchen. The facility consists of a white clapboard house and fenced dining patio near the railroad tracks on Minnesota Street.

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“There are some riffraff who eat at the place, but they never bother me,” said George Bunn, owner of Oceanside Auto Electric. “I’ve even served meals over there. Those people are doing good work, more than most of us will ever do. I won’t help drive ‘em out of here.”

Joe Whip, owner of Whip’s Garage, agrees.

“Brother Benno has a big heart,” said Whip, who gave the kitchen $100 when he heard of the campaign to force it out of town. “He feeds everyone, the poor, the sick. It’s cruel for anyone to talk about closing him down.”

Whip said he looks forward to the kitchen clients’ 5 o’clock arrival.

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“The people wave at me through the window. They say hello. I like to see them pass by.”

Nick Sauer, a local attorney who is on the Brother Benno Foundation’s board of directors, said that kind of support runs deep around town. Sauer said a recent canvass indicated that 30 out of 43 business owners and residents within 300 feet of the kitchen support the operation.

“We want to be good neighbors, and I think we have been,” Sauer said. “There’s a tendency to blame Brother Benno’s for everything. That’s not fair, but we’re willing to do whatever we can to address the concerns because we care as much about the neighborhood as we do the poor.”

Brother Benno’s Kitchen was founded by Harold Kutler, a businessman who became a Catholic deacon and began helping the poor after hearing Mother Theresa speak in 1976. Kutler, a soft-spoken man who owns a sea-water purification firm in town, named the operation after a local Benedictine monk who for years has roamed North County distributing free food, clothing and other goods to the poor.

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The kitchen is supported by donations from church groups, service clubs and individuals. A small army of volunteers composes its staff.

Although several organizations offer a hand to the needy in downtown San Diego, Brother Benno’s remains the only place the hungry can get a free meal along the north county coast, where subdivisions and shopping malls tend to conceal the homeless population.

But even if transients had a dozen facilities to choose from, it’s a good bet they’d pick Brother Benno’s, where the diners are called “guests” and the hospitality can’t be improved on.

“This place is an institution,” said Karen, who declined to give her last name during a recent interview at the kitchen. “The food is good, we need it--especially at the end of the month. But the warm feelings are even better.”

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Each night, seven nights a week, the routine is the same.

First, all guests stand and hold hand over heart for the Pledge of Allegiance. Then a brief prayer is said.

Next, Kutler’s wife, Kay, embraces the guests, one by one, as they file toward the buffet, dished up by volunteers from a different community or church group every day.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new guest among us tonight,” Kay Kutler announced recently after greeting one rather scruffy-looking fellow. “Let’s have a round of applause for Jeff from Texas.”

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Dinner is served--a hearty, well-balanced meal--as tunes waft over the open-air dining area. Then, Kay Kutler invites interested guests to mount a small stage and to provide some entertainment for the crowd.

There are guitar soloists and poets, storytellers and folk singers. Quality varies, but all performers clearly enjoy their moment in the spotlight.

Mares, the body-shop owner, said he has no quarrel with Brother Benno’s cause. His father was a preacher for the Spanish Assn. of God and “helped a lot of poor people.” But not all of those eating at Brother Benno’s are “legitimately poor,” Mares claims.

“A certain proportion should be fed, but there’s a large percentage that are freeloaders. That kitchen is making professional bums out of people by feeding them and not doing anything else to integrate them back into society.”

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Kutler agrees that providing one hot meal a day is but a fraction of the effort needed to get many of the down-and-out back on their feet.

“If I could, I’d have a kitchen, an out-patient medical clinic, a job center, the whole deal,” Kutler said. “But I can’t. So we’re here to provide the most basic human need there is--food.”

Regardless of his opinions on Brother Benno’s mission, Mares feels it is unfair for Oceanside officials--who have encouraged business owners to improve their property as part of the city’s redevelopment effort--to allow a soup kitchen in the heart of downtown.

“The Merchants Assn. was all jazzed about cleaning up Oceanside, making the city look good and promoting it,” said Mares, who has owned the body shop for 15 years. “I agreed, and I cleaned up my place. But when they put this thing in my back yard, I have no more incentive.”

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Dennis Dannat, owner of Dennis Automotive, shares that feeling and said he believes transients lured into the area are responsible for break-ins and other crimes near his business.

Police Chief Larry Marshall, however, said he can “make no statistical connection” between the kitchen and crime in the neighborhood.

“That area used to have the highest crime rate in the city, but it’s dropped significantly in recent years,” Marshall said. “I can’t say whether the situation would have improved even more if Brother Benno’s wasn’t there.”

Marshall did, however, concede that transients who dine at the kitchen do pose a “policing problem, meaning that my officers spend a lot of time patrolling the area and responding to calls of strangers sleeping in doorways and so forth. The kitchen contributes to that by drawing them to the area.”

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To address the policing problem and related concerns of Mares and other merchants, kitchen supporters met recently with city officials to discuss possible solutions. The session produced a “Brother Benno hot line” that area merchants are encouraged to call at any hour when a transient--whether a kitchen guest or not--is causing trouble.

Kutler said, “We will respond, and if necessary, we can identify the person and tell him he won’t be fed if he continues that kind of behavior.

“That will take the strain off the police and give us an idea of who is failing to treat the neighborhood with respect.”

Both Marshall and Councilman Sam Williamson, who has been negotiating on behalf of the merchants, think the hot line has potential. But Mares remains adamant: The kitchen must move.

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“The only answer is to get it out of here,” Mares said. “They’ve got that thing in the wrong location.”

But where, Kutler asks rhetorically, is the right location?

“Everybody wants to help the homeless, but it’s always the same: ‘You’re doing a great job, but don’t do it in my neighborhood.’ ”


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