Don't Feed Homeless on Downtown Streets, City Tells Church Groups

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Church groups that feed the homeless in Balboa Park will not be ticketed for their altruism, but groups that give away food in the streets of downtown San Diego will have to find new sites for their handouts, city officials said Tuesday.

The compromise came during a conciliatory meeting among police, city officials and the leaders of four church groups warned in mid-October that their outdoor meal programs violate a city ordinance.

"We don't intend on enforcing that code with respect to the people who are feeding the homeless," Assistant City Manager Jack McGrory said of the statute that prohibits unauthorized groups from distributing meals. "But, at the same time, we can't have the property rights of people being interfered with."

City officials earlier argued that food giveaways to the homeless are unfairly subjecting neighboring homeowners and business people to extra litter, crime and disruption.

The issue had been simmering for weeks, but criticism that the crackdown was an attempt to hide the homeless during the Soviet arts festival prompted city officials to postpone issuing any tickets while the festival was running.

Ken Parker, spokesman for the Homeless Awareness Volunteer Efforts, a nonprofit umbrella church group, said the feeding programs' effect on crime, litter and surrounding businesses and residential areas was discussed at the meeting.

"The city's people were very cooperative, looking for information and ways to assist us," Parker said. "The city was willing to listen to the needs of the homeless and see what could be done, but at the same time trying to balance the needs of businesses with the needs of the homeless. I thought it was a very positive meeting, and the city was represented as being very supportive."

City officials gave their blessing to a Salvation Army dinner program that feeds up to 400 people nightly in a parking lot in Balboa Park--the largest such giveaway in the city--and promised to provide extra trash cans and restrooms to help keep the area clean.

But they continued to frown on groups that have been feeding the homeless in more centrally located areas. McGrory said he has received many complaints against the San Diego Coalition for the Homeless, which distributes free meals to as many as 500 people at 12th Avenue and K Street every Wednesday. He urged the group to start looking for a new site but promised to allow the feedings to continue until one is found.

Juan Hernandez, owner of ACME Graphix, situated across the street from the coalition, said his and neighboring businesses have all been burglarized in the last few months and blamed the handouts for attracting desperate people to the area.

"It's just bad," Hernandez complained. "They come to get food, and they hang around. They panhandle my customers. They even follow the customers inside sometimes. I'm not opposed to helping the homeless, but help them right. Keep them away from downtown, away from the tourist area, where they won't bother anyone, where you can really help them."

Coalition Executive Director Norma Rossi said that she was encouraged by the meeting but that a police sweep at the coalition site early Monday that confiscated about 30 shopping carts used by homeless people keeps her skeptical of the city's commitment to help the homeless.

"If what happened (Monday) hadn't happened, I might feel better about everything," Rossi said. "I can't say that I feel real positive that something will work out. I'm going to wait and see."

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