South County Beat: Homelessness can happen to anyone

About 100 people were eating lasagna and cake recently at People’s Kitchen in Grover Beach. Volunteers had cooked the food in their own kitchens and brought it to the outdoor picnic area at Shouts of Grace Church at 675 W. Grand Ave.

Benjamin Hawthorne, 22, of Grover Beach was one of the guests. Homeless for the past five months, he left home at 14½, when his dad kicked him out.

He moved to California in 2007, moving back and forth, then came here to be near his 2-year-old son. Now Benjamin sees his son twice a week.

“There’s more than just me now,” he said. “The love I have for him keeps me going.”

Benjamin sleeps where he can find an out-of-the-way spot, using his sleeping bag and blankets.

He tries to find a clean space: “I’m a clean freak.” Recently he incurred a $100 ticket for sleeping outside.

Terri Ikeda and Dana Cusack are mothers who decided to volunteer at People’s Kitchen 10 years ago, and they have been doing it since.

They got their kids involved, too. Adults now, their children continue to volunteer. High school students can do community service there. They cook at home, always lasagna.

“We want to give back,” Dana said.

“You can’t judge the people — we don’t know their circumstances,” Terri added.

It’s great that the people here “look out for each other,” Terri said. For example, they offer rides to each other to the doctor or to services.

Jesse Binam, 31, has been homeless for 2½ years. He worked in computer programming and networking in Santa Ana, but he lost his job, then his apartment.

“Nobody wants to give you a job when you don’t have a place to live,” he lamented.

When he was collecting cans for money, “a cop gave me a ticket for going through the trash.

“You’re just a criminal no matter what,” he declared.

He tried to get food stamps but found the lady at the county Department of Social Services “demeaning.”

Another guest, “Steven,” was homeless for a long time. He comes from a very abusive family, mentally and physically. He said his parents tried to kill him.

Now receiving disability benefits, the 53-year-old used to do elder care and drive limousines. He went through the program at the Maxine Lewis homeless shelter in San Luis Obispo and now lives in a one-bedroom unit in Los Osos.

He comes to People’s Kitchen in Grover Beach because he says it’s friendlier and less crowded.

As volunteers cleaned up, Steven helped clear tables. He’s proud of his daughter, who recently graduated from Cal Poly with a 3.7 grade-point average.

Betsy Ehrler, president of South County People’s Kitchen, said all the people who eat there have “worthy stories.” Many are Vietnam War veterans.

Secretary Nancy Imwold and her husband, Dave, started People’s Kitchen with others 20 years ago. They went to churches to develop teams to volunteer. They started with Thanksgiving dinner, went to one meal per week and eventually to 365 days a year.

It’s been a wonderful experience, Nancy said.

A new center is being planned for all homeless services and is to be called the South County Community Services Center, once funding and a location is found.

For information, to donate or to volunteer, call Betsy at 489-9046 or Nancy at 489-3254.

Gayle Cuddy and Cynthia Lambert write the South County Beat column on alternating Wednesdays. Reach Cuddy at 489-1026 or nightengayles@aol.com.