Food Service for Poor Falls Victim to Church Dispute With Neighbors

Times Staff Writer

When Rick Evans runs out of money, he hides his tent and backpack in the Hollywood Hills and goes to the Crescent Heights United Methodist Church for a bag supper.

"It's quick and it's not something you have to listen to a lot of religion for," said the former used-car salesman, relaxing on a staircase in the interior courtyard of the church after dining on a barbecue beef sandwich, pasta salad, cookies and fruit.

Evans was one of 96 people, most of them homeless men like himself, who showed up Wednesday evening for the food distributed every day from 6 to 7 p.m. by the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition.

The coalition serves about 3,000 meals a month, but organizers are afraid that the number of people served will drop when the operation moves to Plummer Park on Santa Monica Boulevard.

"It's really too bad," said Michael Sausser, who helps coordinate the program. "Everybody says we're doing a wonderful service but nobody wants us close to them."

He said the poor and homeless patrons may find it difficult to get to the new location and that the food service may create problems with other users of the park.

Henry Rees, who said he lives on a Social Security check of about $600 a month, agreed. "If you go down to the park, you're going to get a lot of drunks," he said. "They start drinking their wine down there and they start arguing. And you'll get a lot of sheriff harassment. A lot of people are going to go the other way."

Now operating out of a kitchen in the social hall of the church, the 3-month-old food program appears to have fallen victim to a long-simmering dispute between the Methodist congregation and its neighbors over the heavy use of the building by Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups.

The church, at Fairfax and Fountain avenues, is notable for its neon sign. It was founded in the early 1920s as the Methodist Episcopal Church of Crescent Heights.

The parish once had more than 340 members, but as the neighborhood changed from single-family homes to apartments and the original parishioners died or moved away, the membership dwindled to less than 60, not all of whom are active.

Funds Limited

The church "had been dealing with the older remnant congregation, and then there was a new congregation that was designed to appeal to the gay and lesbian community, but that never really got off the ground," said Roland Brammeier, Los Angeles area superintendent for the United Methodist Church.

"It's a very small worshiping congregation and their funds for operating the church come from donations for the use of the building."

Although Pastor Miriam Stump declined to say how many meetings there are or how many people attend them, Larry Neumeister of the newly formed Fountain-Fairfax Residents Assn. said church officials told him that about 2,240 people use the church every week.

He said that he thinks the total is higher.

"People arrive at 7 p.m. and (the meetings) supposedly go on until 10 p.m., but the people who live next door say the meetings go until after midnight," he said. "People park with impunity in the red zones and driveways and it's sort of inflamed the area."

Stump defended the large number of meetings as a form of ministry, saying that only groups intent on sanctification--"actually becoming that whole person we were meant to be"--are allowed to use the church facilities.

Open to Everybody

"A good number of the groups have large numbers of gays and lesbians, but they're open to everybody," she said.

"They all follow basic Christian theology. It may be couched in different terms but it's very definitely a Christian order of events in terms of salvation: Recognition of a higher power, confession, repentance. They may not call it that, but that's what it is."

Brammeier, however, said a church needs to be sensitive to its surroundings despite its devotion to good works.

"If you're alienating the neighborhood, I don't know how effective your ministry would be, and I think the pastor would agree with that," he said.

Although members of the neighborhood group have met with representatives of the church and the city to try to work out a compromise, Neumeister said there has been no real improvement despite the paving of a strip south of the church building to be used as a parking lot for 16 cars. No other off-street parking is available.

"Basically, there has been no cooperation on their part," he said. "They have continually brought up that we are against the church and the organizations that meet there. We're not."

As for the food line, Neumeister said, it attracts mentally unstable people who alarm residents, sleep in public and throw trash on the street.

Trash Left

"Visually, it's raping the neighborhood," he said. "The other day they gave them salad and they threw the paper all over. Iceberg lettuce with Italian dressing. No nutrition at all. And paper, cans, brown paper bags. We've fought endlessly to get them to pick it up."

He acknowledged that after neighbors complain, trash is generally cleaned up, but he said that the parking problem remains.

The residents association went ahead last week with legal action intended to force the city to require that the church provide at least 36 parking spaces within 400 yards of the building. They are seeking an order in Los Angeles Superior Court requiring the city to strictly enforce its minimum parking standards for public meeting places.

Church officials "won't be able to do it," Neumeister said, because there is no more available space for parking. "So I'd like to use (the court order) as an instrument to reduce the number of people at those meetings."

Stump said the church is negotiating with a nearby synagogue to use its parking lot.

"We've built a temporary parking area," Stump said. "It's not really adequate but it's the best we can do." Despite that, she said, "I don't think the anger has abated."

In addition to the food service and Alcoholics Anonymous, the church is used by Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics and other groups, including the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenant-rights organization that was instrumental in the incorporation of West Hollywood more than two years ago. A Korean Methodist congregation also meets at the church.

Council Decision

The residents unsuccessfully challenged how the church is being used at a West Hollywood City Council meeting earlier this spring.

"We felt that these were worthwhile activities and that every neighborhood has to accept some of the burden," said Councilman John Heilman.

But because of the noise and other problems, he said, the council decided that the food service, which is funded at $1,000 a month by the city and receives food donations, will have to go elsewhere.

"This will be better in the long run for the food program, because it's not going to get embroiled in a neighborhood controversy where there's a lot of bad blood and definitely some hostility," he said. "There's only so much people should have to accept in their residential neighborhood."

He also said the program may find new patrons at the park, which is frequented by large numbers of elderly immigrants.

The move is expected to take place within a few weeks, but a city report said there may be problems if the recipients loiter in the park after getting their food.

"Limiting food clients' access to the park, which would raise various legal questions to begin with, would become particularly difficult if seniors from the park begin to participate in the program," the report said.

"There is some fear that the size of the client population and problems of monitoring could become unmanageable," the report said.

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