South County People's Kitchen looking for new location

clambert@thetribunenews.comFebruary 13, 2013 

Members of the First Presbyterian Church — from left, Gretchen Channing, Bob Sellers, Martha Salsbury, Art Lowe and Mary-Joe Aspinell — help serve lunch to the homeless at the South County People's Kitchen in 2008. At the time, the organization was located at 16th Street and Longbranch Avenue in Grover Beach.

NICK LUCERO — The Tribune Buy Photo

After nearly five years at its Grover Beach location, South County People’s Kitchen will again have to find a new home.

The organization, which has served hot, free lunches to the homeless and other individuals in need for 21 years, must move from its current spot on West Grand Avenue by the end of July.

Shouts of Grace Church, which has provided a space for volunteers to serve noon-time meals at 675 W. Grand Ave., is moving its Sunday services to the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande, and won’t be able to accommodate People’s Kitchen.

Pastor Patrick Sparrow said church members will do everything they can to help People’s Kitchen in its relocation effort. “There’s always been an understanding that it was a temporary location,” he added.

People’s Kitchen has moved a half-dozen times since volunteers started serving meals out of the back of a truck near the railroad tracks in Grover Beach in 1992. Since then, food has been served at several churches in Grover Beach as well as a former county Health Department facility.

Eventually, People’s Kitchen organizers hope to have a permanent home as part of a community center that would also offer housing assistance, job training, drug and alcohol services, mental health counseling and other services.

Plans for the community center are headed up by the 5Cities Homeless Coalition, a local nonprofit organization that has been searching for suitable sites for a center in the Five Cities area for more than a year.

The coalition is in a long-term escrow on a half-acre property on Nipomo Street in Oceano, but some Oceano residents have expressed concerns that the proposed location doesn’t align with ongoing efforts to revitalize the town’s downtown.

In the meantime, People’s Kitchen may need to find another temporary location so that it can continue offering lunch until the 5Cities Homeless Coalition’s plans come to fruition.

People’s Kitchen president Betsy Ehrler said the organization is looking for sites primarily in Grover Beach and Oceano because that’s largely where the homeless population in South County is based.

Demand for the lunchtime meals has increased over the years, she said.

People’s Kitchen now regularly feeds about 80 to 90 people a day toward the beginning of each month. By the end of the month, attendance rises to about 120 per day, and increases to as many as 145 daily during the summer, she said.

At the same time, the number of homeless people in Grover Beach has appeared to increase, and the Police Department has received more complaints from business owners about littering, loitering and other issues, Chief Jim Copsey said.

Copsey said his department doesn’t track the number of calls for service involving someone who is homeless, but last year he looked at the number of calls related specifically to People’s Kitchen.

From Jan. 1, 2012, through July 1, 2012, the department responded to 22 incidents at the church’s address, including seven reports of people sleeping or camping in the area. During the same time period in 2011, police had 16 calls for service — and none were for camping. It’s unclear whether those calls involved homeless people.

“There’s a perception that we have more people in town sticking around and sleeping behind businesses and camping in bushes,” Copsey said.

Police have not linked the increase in homelessness in town specifically to People’s Kitchen, he said.

“The majority of people who go to People’s Kitchen are not causing a problem in town,” he added.

Ehrler said People’s Kitchen volunteers will ask someone to leave if he or she is behaving in a way that’s detrimental to the program.

Anyone interested in talking to Ehrler about a new location for People’s Kitchen can reach her at 489-9046. For more information about the 5Cities Homeless Coalition’s plans, go to http://5chc.org.

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