South County People's Kitchen serves last meal at Grover Beach site

Ed Brecht and sons Malachi, 1, left, and Peter, 3, have lunch Thursday as Betty Ashton offers them apples at the South County People's Kitchen location on 16th Street in Grover Beach. Brecht said he's been homeless since being evicted in July.
Ed Brecht and sons Malachi, 1, left, and Peter, 3, have lunch Thursday as Betty Ashton offers them apples at the South County People's Kitchen location on 16th Street in Grover Beach. Brecht said he's been homeless since being evicted in July. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

At first glance, David Buckland and Tim Rathbone don’t look like they would need to patronize a soup kitchen. Buckland, a boisterous man in his late 50s, wears a blue button-up shirt, slacks and sports coat as he eats his lunch. Rathbone, also in his late 50s, sits quietly in an argyle sweater and mended glasses with a folded newspaper next to him.

Yet both men struggle financially. Buckland works a sales commission job that often fails to provide enough money for rent, gas and his wife’s diabetes medications. Rathbone, a volunteer assistant archivist with the Central Coast Veterans Museum, has been living in his car with his 26-year-old son since being evicted from their apartment four months ago.

Buckland and Rathbone regularly ventured to the dirt parking lot in Grover Beach where the South County People’s Kitchen served a free, warm meal each day to the homeless and low-income.

That ended Thursday, when People’s Kitchen stopped serving meals at its 16th Street location.

“This is so much more than just a place for people to eat,” Buckland said while eating lunch Wednesday. “It’s a place for people to have a sense of belonging in the community.”

But that community is going away.

In October, amid complaints from some residents of increased crime in the neighborhood surrounding the Kitchen, the Grover Beach City Council denied the organization's request for a permit to operate out of the city-owned parking lot. It was given 45 days to move.

The 21-year-old organization could not find a permanent spot before Friday’s deadline.

Starting Friday, the group will switch to distributing sandwiches at places where the homeless population tends to congregate, President Betsy Ehrler said.

Though this leaves out a large portion of the Kitchen’s previous lunch-goers it was the only option besides shutting down entirely, Ehrler said.

The kitchen has received the go-ahead from the city for its plan.

“All of us want to see People’s Kitchen work,” Mayor Debbie Peterson said. “We appreciate everything they’ve done for us, and for the community.”

Ehrler said the group is still looking for a physical location to serve meals. She said she is in talks with a Grover Beach warehouse owner and is looking at some properties in Oceano. Still, it could be months before something is set up.

Certainly, the organization will not be settled in time to serve its traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Ehler has been unable to persuade any local venues to rent space for the holiday meal.

“It's kind of sad, and I hope all the people who turned us down do have a happy Thanksgiving inside, knowing there are others they left out there in the cold,” she said.

In the meantime, low-income and homeless residents such as Buckland and Rathbone are adrift without a reliable place for a warm meal. Both men said the kitchen had become a support center for them; a place where volunteers bring clothing and blankets, and people watch out for each other.

“When we’re here, we’re a part of the community; when we are out there, we’re just out there,” Buckland said. “We’ll go away, but I don’t think the problems will.”

Many of the kitchen’s current patrons will suffer without that support system, said volunteer Frank Derusha, who also distributes donated goods and clothing at homeless encampments.

“There was a young man here earlier — Nick, he’s got tattoos all over — he just got a job dishwashing,” Derusha said. “This is a meth person, a former pot dealer. He’s working his way back into society. But how’s he going to do that if this is where he needs to go to get support?”

The South County does have several resources for homeless individuals, including the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition and several San Luis Obispo County Food Bank distribution centers, though none serve a daily meal.

Jan Nichols, executive director of 5 Cities Homeless Coalition, said the full impact of the People’s Kitchen closure won’t be known for some time, other than that “obviously more people will be going hungry.”

Nichols, who has worked with several South County agencies to try to create a community service center for the homeless, said people need to move beyond just talking about the merits of People’s Kitchen.

“I think it’s a broader discussion for the collective communities on how to address the homeless population,” she said.

Derusha, who said he will continue to help out with the People’s Kitchen in its new format, echoed Nichols’ thoughts.

“Between Avila Beach and Nipomo, there are 900 people on the street,” Derusha said. “If it was 900 stray dogs, Oprah Winfrey would be here, opening shelters — there should be a long-term plan for the folks here.”