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Group feeding needy sues state parks agency

Times Staff Writer

Members of a charity group threatened with arrest while trying to feed homeless people at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point have filed a federal lawsuit against state parks officials, claiming interference with their constitutional rights.

The faith-based organization Welcome INN provided meals in the park’s picnic area on two consecutive evenings in February without incident, according to the legal complaint filed this week by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union.

On the third night, a park ranger blocked volunteers from unloading food from their cars, telling the group it was engaging in “unlawful assembly,” and threatening citation and arrest, the complaint states.

“We’re all incredibly disappointed,” said Jim Seiler, president of Welcome INN, which stands for Interfaith Needs Network. “All we’re trying to do is . . . fulfill our religious obligation and take care of the people.”

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The suit seeks to overturn what the ACLU terms an “unconstitutionally broad” state law that regulates assembling in state parks.

The group has been offering hot meals, plus social services help and Bibles, to about 50 homeless or low-income people -- many of them regular visitors -- in the Capistrano Beach area of south Orange County for nearly two decades.

State parks officials say they sympathize with the plight of the homeless, but “it’s not appropriate for a state park system that’s designed for vacation and recreation . . . to be an answer to a social services problem,” spokesman Roy Stearns said Thursday. “There are other agencies set up that are better prepared to deal with this and better intended than a park system.”

Some three dozen adults and a few children gathered late Thursday afternoon across from a school bus yard in Capistrano Beach, where they said the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish and English with Welcome INN volunteers and lined up for meatloaf, noodles and soda.

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“They just totally got our family through last year,” said Vickie Reed, gathered with her five children to pick up fruit punch, boxed suppers and plastic containers of chocolate “molten lava” cake. Reed’s husband lost his job last year, and the family has struggled to make ends meet since then.

“They’re out here every day at 4:30 and it makes all the difference . . . between eating and not eating,” she said.

The all-volunteer nonprofit group used to operate out of local churches, but families in the congregations grew concerned about the homeless individuals’ scruffy appearance, Seiler said.

So, for the last few years, Welcome INN’s daily meals have been in search of a home themselves, rotating among private residences, lawns, street corners and cul-de-sacs to distribute burritos or chicken dinners.

Because the group’s location is constantly changing, many needy people have missed out on free meals. Organizers figured the state park might be a less-disruptive setting.

“We didn’t want to break the law or nothing -- we just wanted to eat,” said William Spoon, 38, a homeless man from Dana Point who has been receiving meals from and volunteering with the organization over the last year. He said the state beach is “the park of the people.”

Volunteer Patti Church, also on the group’s board of directors, called the incident a “blatant act of discrimination” as she passed out cookies and picked up garbage at Thursday’s meal.

A couple of Orange County sheriff’s patrol cars cruised by, with deputies warning the group gathered on curbs to not block the bus yard’s driveway.

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The 12-page complaint seeks an injunction against state park officials to prevent them from “interfering” with the group’s activities.

Park officials “have deprived and continue to deprive [Welcome INN] of the rights to freedom of speech, association and religion protected by the 1st Amendment,” the complaint states.

According to the complaint, the ranger warned the volunteers that they were violation of state code Section 4321, which applies to all California state parks: “No person shall conduct or attend an assembly or public demonstration except by permission of the Department [of Parks and Recreation] upon a finding that such activity would not substantially interfere with park use.”

The group then appealed to a park superintendent, who confirmed the ranger’s warning, the complaint states.

ACLU attorney Hector Villagra contends that the regulation is overly broad and “is fundamentally flawed from a 1st Amendment perspective.”

Villagra likened the homeless gathering to the picnics or barbecues allowed at the state beach. “You can’t discriminate against expressive activity because you disagree with the people involved or the message that they’re conveying,” he said.

Stearns said the group would have to obtain a special-use permit for its activity, required of all formal groups gathering in the park.

“It is not a family with five, 10, 15 kids driving to the park to eat a birthday cake,” he said. “It’s an organized feeding event for the homeless. That’s different.”

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susannah.rosenblatt @latimes.com


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