South County People's Kitchen goes mobile while looking for new home

Betsy Ehrler and volunteer Charles Florez set out lunches for the South County People's Kitchen clients at a local park on Tuesday, Dec. 31.
Betsy Ehrler and volunteer Charles Florez set out lunches for the South County People's Kitchen clients at a local park on Tuesday, Dec. 31. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

By five to noon on Tuesday, a small group of people, some carrying backpacks or on bicycles, had gathered around a table at a park in Grover Beach.

Soon after, South County People’s Kitchen President Betsy Ehrler pulled her car into a parking space, helped volunteers place brown paper bags and cake on the table, and then led the group in a brief prayer.

“I know, Lord, that you have an answer,” she said. “I know we need to be vigilant about our behaviors.”

Then, about 25 people grabbed lunch bags and slices of cake. A few bit into their ham-and-cheese sandwiches on the spot; others took the food to go.

By 12:20 p.m., the park had emptied, the volunteers had departed and Ehrler and one other People’s Kitchen board member headed to another city park, where they handed out bags of food to two women.

They left the rest of the sack lunches at an Oceano church where about a dozen people had gathered. Ehrler then returned to the first park to ensure no trash had been left behind.

This has become the routine for People’s Kitchen volunteers since Nov. 23 — and is likely to remain the status quo for at least the next month or two.

In October, the Grover Beach City Council denied the nonprofit group’s request for a permit to operate for eight months in a county-owned lot on South 16th Street.

The council’s 4-1 decision, with Councilman Glenn Marshall dissenting, came amid accusations from community members that the kitchen brings increased crime to the area.

About 200 residents and business owners signed a petition claiming the kitchen’s presence increased the number of transients loitering around and created issues including panhandling, vandalism and theft.

In response, People’s Kitchen organizers told the council they don’t tolerate illegal or negative behavior, and Ehrler said she presented a survey showing 65 percent of People’s Kitchen patrons live in Grover Beach.

The survey of 285 people included 178 who said they live in a home. An additional 106 were homeless and one described as “transient,” or just passing through town.

Ehrler is feeling discouraged, though she tries not to show it. She did not want to disclose the locations where People’s Kitchen volunteers now distribute food, worried that members of the public might complain and harm the program.

Those who need the service learn the locations through word of mouth. Sometimes, Ehrler said, she’ll recognize a People’s Kitchen patron walking down the street at lunch and stop to offer food.

“We get blamed for things that happen at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. They say we’re the magnet,” she said. “Our contention is that they’re already here. They live here, and we need to take care of them.”

People’s Kitchen organizers informed the city of their current lunchtime handouts and weren’t required to obtain a permit. The distribution is too small to require a special events permit, and the parks are open to general use, City Manager Bob Perrault said.

In the meantime, Ehrler is hoping to serve food from a warehouse in an industrial area of Grover Beach soon. She is working on an application for a permit there, as required by zoning laws.

That location also would be temporary while the group searches for a permanent spot. Ehrler didn’t want to disclose the exact address of the warehouse, since some details aren’t finalized.

“We need a permanent place,” said David Sorenson, a 47-year-old Grover Beach resident who visits the kitchen almost daily. Sorenson, who grew up in the Five Cities area, wore a flannel shirt and a hat that read, “Jesus heals when we pray.”

“It’s very important because it helps my family when we’re low on food,” he said.