Ramona Garden Park was quiet and chilly Tuesday afternoon as Betsy Erhler and a small band of volunteers hustled to hand out free bagged lunches to about 50 people lined up single-file before the picnic tables.
Erhler and the South County People's Kitchen have provided free lunches daily at the park since the organization lost its spot at a local church in November and the Grover Beach City Council denied it a permit to operate for eight months in a county-owned lot on South 16th Street.
The council’s decision was based at the time on complaints from neighbors that the service attracts an unwanted element to the area — complaints that have followed the People’s Kitchen to the park and nearby businesses on West Grand Avenue.
“We’ve tried to be as quick and keep this as easy as possible, but people still have problems with it,” Erhler said. “We’re trying to keep people alive until they can turn things around.”
Those complaints about the park and nearby businesses led the Grover Beach Police Department to hold a community meeting Tuesday night on what it called “vagrant issues” in the area.
At the start of the meeting, however, Grover Beach police Chief Jim Copsey pointed out to about 100 people packed inside the Ramona Garden Center that the meeting wasn’t about People’s Kitchen. Complaints in the area started coming in before they showed up, and the organization is not violating any laws, he said.
“There’s no hidden agenda here. We’re looking for new ideas,” Copsey said.
According to the Police Department, the number of homeless people living in the city is unknown, but police Cmdr. Tim Miller said the majority of those getting free meals at the park are not causing problems.
Some of them, however, may be among a troublesome group of 20 to 25 people who consistently linger around the park, he said.
The department received 393 calls for service to Ramona Park and the nearby West Grand Avenue area in 2013, a majority for public intoxication and trespassing. So far this year, there have been 78 calls for service, a rate on par with last year’s.
Copsey said officers have to balance between profiling people and being responsive to safety concerns. People have the right to be in a public park, but a small group of people do not have the right to engage in criminal activity, he said.
The department faces challenges because of state prison realignment, which has resulted in a “revolving door” at the San Luis Obispo County Jail for offenders convicted of low-level offenses, Copsey said. Many repeat offenders don’t bother to show up to court yet still have citations dismissed.
“There’s nowhere to put them,” he said. “Believe me, officers are very frustrated.”
The Police Department’s limitations did not sit well with a majority of the residents in attendance, and much of the frustration concentrated on the People’s Kitchen.
“You need to find another location for them — that’s it,” said one man who only identified himself as a neighbor of the park.
“It isn’t just 25 people,” said business owner Linda McClure. “We have a big homeless issue here because Grover Beach has been too lenient over the years. … We have a dangerous situation at hand, and somebody’s going to get hurt.”
But about a quarter of the audience defended the volunteers and their clients.
“The People’s Kitchen has had a very challenging time serving food to the homeless,” Tricia Witt said. “They don’t particularly want to serve here, and I know they’re looking (for a new location).”
Barbara Owen, who sits on the group’s board of directors, said a majority of the people it serves are not homeless, based on a survey it took of 285 people who use its services.
The Police Department is mulling strategies to deal with the problem, including installing surveillance cameras at the park, working to prevent local liquor stores from selling to already intoxicated customers and talking with the City Council about ordinances that would give the city greater control in issuing citations.
After the meeting, Grover Beach resident Loren Pritchard told The Tribune that he did not blame People’s Kitchen for problems at the park, but rather about 30 people he said “don’t care about our way of life.”
“It’s not so much the meals — I think that’s great, actually — but it’s the bad apples who are cussing people out at the park,” he said.
Steve Soto, who said he’s a fourth-generation county resident looking for work, takes advantage of the meals in the park almost daily. He agrees that a few people do cause problems but said the benefits to everyone else outweigh those problems.
“It’s a progressive area, and this is the progressive thing to do,” Soto said.
The city will schedule a second meeting on the issue, though a date and whether that would be before the City Council or within the community will be decided in the coming months.