South County People's Kitchen must move again — or shut down

South County People's Kitchen serves meals to the homeless in a dirt parking lot on South 16th Street in Grover Beach.
South County People's Kitchen serves meals to the homeless in a dirt parking lot on South 16th Street in Grover Beach. kleslie@thetribunenews.com

The South County People’s Kitchen will once again have to pack up and move following the Grover Beach City Council’s decision Monday to deny the kitchen’s request for a permit — but where it will go, not even its president knows.

“We’ve asked everyone to look for property,” said Betsy Ehrler, the group’s leader, “but right now we have nothing solid.”

The volunteer organization, which has fed the homeless and those in need in the Five Cities area since 1992, appealed to the City Council on Monday night for a conditional use permit that would allow the kitchen to operate out of a county-owned lot on 16th Street until July 2014.

The kitchen moved into that location in July, after its previous location, Shouts of Grace Church, could no longer accommodate it after moving the church’s Sunday services.

The council denied the request, 4-1, with Councilman Glenn Marshall dissenting, amid accusations from community members that the kitchen brings increased crime to the area. Kitchen organizers responded by telling the council that they don’t tolerate illegal or negative behavior.

The Longbranch Neighborhood Coalition submitted a petition to the Grover Beach Planning Commission, which heard and denied the kitchen’s request in September. It was signed by approximately 200 residents and business owners, claiming that the kitchen’s presence resulted in “a noticeable increase in the number of transients loitering around … repeatedly creating various public nuisance situations including panhandling, vagrancy, vandalism and theft.”

The number of calls for service to the police department did increase in the time People’s Kitchen occupied the space on 16th Street, according to a staff report given to the City Council.

The report said the number of calls to police about transient behavior totaled 42 calls in July, 45 calls in August and 66 calls in September. The report did not say whether police issued any citations or made any arrests. It also did not include any comparative monthly data for the area before the kitchen moved to the 16th Street lot.

In the South County People’s Kitchen appeal filed with the city Sept. 17, Ehrler said the organization has worked hard to combat such issues.

“We do not condone negative behaviors such as panhandling or illegal actions of any kind,” she wrote, adding that “we should not be blamed for every problem caused in a certain area by those who may be transient and/or homeless area residents.”

“The location where we are serving now is nowhere close to ideal, but it will suffice until something better can be found,” Ehrler wrote in the appeal.

The City Council gave People’s Kitchen 45 days to vacate the property, putting stress on the organization to find a new location before Thanksgiving — one of the kitchen’s busiest days.

“We want to be able to get out of (the current spot) quickly now,” Ehrler said, “and get established somewhere else before then.”

Church parking lots, from which the kitchen in the past has largely operated, are not the ideal solution anymore, Ehrler said.

To use a church parking lot, the kitchen would still need to obtain a use permit, but because most churches are in residential neighborhoods, the same concerns that were brought up at the current location would likely be raised, Ehrler said.

Instead, Ehrler and kitchen volunteers are looking to find a 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Grover Beach or Oceano so they can be closer to the larger homeless populations in those areas.

“It would be nice to be inside,” she said. “Right now, we don’t have anything to protect from (the elements).”

Other requirements for the space include on-site bathrooms — to reduce the number of complaints about transients relieving themselves in homeowners’ yards — and a small kitchenette to help prepare meals, Ehrler said.

Until such a location has been found, or until the 45-day deadline has passed, the kitchen will continue to serve noontime meals at 286 S. 16th St.

If no new location is found, the 21-year-old organization’s last meal will be served Nov. 22.

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