Another story about the opening of a soup kitchen may have about as much relevancy to North County’s mainstream population as last week’s weather report.
But, for a once prospering San Diego businessman too embarrassed to give his full name, the opening Monday of North County Interfaith Council’s new soup kitchen meant he wouldn’t have to eat a slice of bread in his car, nourishment with which to rebuild his life.
He sat alone at the dining table in the Escondido facility, breakfasting on a dish of beef stew, vegetable salad and garlic bread. If his life’s journey was a non sequitur, so too was the string quintet in the corner of the dining room playing Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Scott Joplin pieces, the five women members looking smart in their pressed white blouses and black skirts, sitting upright with their violins tucked firmly beneath their chins.
Live classical music in a soup kitchen? The soothing strings offered a sense of dignity and respect to the gathering of 35 men and women who gratefully accepted the free meal. No funeral dirge here; some of the volunteers staffing the kitchen danced to “The Entertainer.”
And so it was that Joel, the man from San Diego who had seen better days, talked plainly about his life and what brought him here, to this gleaming new kitchen and dining hall.
“I came up here (from San Diego) about a week ago to look for work,” he said. “I’ve been staying in my car, and a fellow down the street told me about this place, so I came. I would have gotten by if I didn’t come. I’ve got a loaf of bread in the car.
“I had a business in San Diego. We discovered a new source for nutritional products--nutritional supplements--and it took off very well,” he said. “We were making between $30,000 and $80,000 a month in ’83. By the end of ’84, we were making zero.”
Joel said he poured his life savings into the enterprise, good money chasing bad. He was beat, and never bounced back. And now here he was, dining with fellows in a homeless fraternity the likes of which he never thought he would be a member.
“I’m not frightened,” he said, “but am I disheartened? Of course I am. I was self-employed for years, and that seems to make it doubly hard for me. I’m 59. I’ve always run my business. I don’t type. I know how to run a business from the top down.
“And now,” he said, “I’m willing to do anything, if I can find it.”
Joel was not typical of the down-and-outers at the soup kitchen, if only because there wasn’t a typical one in the bunch.
Sylvia, 47, who was described by those who know her as chronically homeless, said she is afraid to work and finds it easier to get by on the streets, alone. She would have hardly a care, she said, if it weren’t for the man who took over her favorite nesting place, the front porch of a nearby church.
Then there was Terry, a 30-year-old British transplant living at home with his parents but feeling too embarrassed, on top of the free rent he is receiving, to eat every meal at home. So he came here for breakfast.
“My parents would rather have me eat at home than to come here,” he said. “I have a job--it’s an honest living, recycling--but it doesn’t pay too well. So I’ll eat breakfast here.”
Others came and went during the breakfast hour, spending little time over the meal, taking a free sack lunch--peanut butter sandwich and fruit--before heading off, either for work or in search of it.
Only one meal is served at the soup kitchen, and then only for an hour, in order to encourage the men and women to work or look for jobs during the day, said Suzanne Pohlman, NCIC’s executive director.
The kitchen represents an $800,000 investment by the community--about $750,000 of that from the city of Escondido, which acted as a mediator for federal funds--along with several other federal grants, private foundation gifts and individual donations from major benefactors in Escondido.
The money paid for the 7,500-square-foot building, which features the kitchen and dining hall at one end, a 10-man dormitory in the middle, shower and laundry facilities, and, at the other end, offices for caretakers of the suffering.
The NCIC project resembles a sort of scaled-down version of the St. Vincent de Paul Center in San Diego--but with amenities not offered even by that popular downtown program, which has won nationwide kudos for its approach to dealing with the homeless.
The NCIC complex is on Rose Street at Valley Parkway, in a renovated shopping center selected by the city as the best place from which to serve the hungry and homeless. That decision was opposed by some merchants who felt the shopping center would become a magnet for less-desirables, but there was no protest Monday, nor lingerers who might spoil whatever ambiance area merchants hope to project.
The soup kitchen had operated in three other locations in Escondido over the past two years--two churches and a restaurant--and has served an estimated 35,000 meals. Officials say they hope they’re at this location for good.
If the soup kitchen is the most identifiable outreach program of NCIC--with the number of daily diners expected to reach 150 or more in coming weeks--it is not necessarily the most significant.
Joel Marable, who manages the operation, said a wide range of volunteer professionals--from psychologists and attorneys to financial planners and job counselors--are available to meet with NCIC’s constituents, to help them piece their lives together.
Talks are under way with the state Employment Development Department so that employers looking for day laborers can contact the men at the soup kitchen at 7 a.m., as well as the EDD office on the other side of Escondido.
“Right now, guys have a choice of eating breakfast here at 7 in the morning, or going over to EDD, where the casual labor line forms at the same time--7--and where jobs are first come, first served. It’s a hard choice for a guy who’s hungry and looking for a job,” said Bob Klug, who’s in charge of NCIC’s food and shelter programs.
NCIC’s most difficult challenge--and one that will be only partly met by the new center--is finding housing for the homeless who come to Escondido.
“We’re seeing more and more families coming out from the Midwest--people who have lost their jobs and who have heard from friends that there are jobs in California,” Marable said. “I’m calling it the California Gold Rush syndrome. One lady came out from Joplin (Mo.) with her two children at the urging of her friend in San Marcos. She left a three-bedroom home that she was paying $200 a month for in Joplin, only to find that a one-bedroom apartment out here goes for $500 to $600.”
NCIC places homeless people in shelters and private residences in North County and in 11 area churches that rotate in opening their social halls as temporary dormitories. In emergencies, a motel room is occasionally rented, and some families have been sent with tents to the Escondido city campground at nearby Dixon Lake.
The new facility offers 10 bunks for 30 days at a time to men who qualify. Applicants must pass a stringent screening process that looks at alcohol and drug use as well as the applicant’s motivation in finding work.
Pohlman said that, despite the initial injection of federal money, the center’s continued success will depend on individual donations.
To that point, NCIC is promoting its “Kitchen Klub” for donors who contribute $50 to feed a hungry person for six weeks or $300 to “buy” a breakfast table for six people for six weeks.
“We’re taking a step out in faith that we can carry this out,” Pohlman said.