Grover Beach looks at ways to cut crime near People's Kitchen lunch spot

Valerie McRory, in black, hands out meals at Ramona Garden Park in Grover Beach on Wednesday. Roughly 50 meals were distributed.
Valerie McRory, in black, hands out meals at Ramona Garden Park in Grover Beach on Wednesday. Roughly 50 meals were distributed. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A line of about 25 people formed at Grover Beach’s Ramona Garden Park about noon Wednesday.

One by one, they accepted a plastic container and a cold water bottle before leaving the park or finding a spot in the shade to eat their lunch.

“For the most part they’re good,” said Valerie McRory, a volunteer with a local church who was passing out lunches for South County People’s Kitchen. “They appreciate what we’re doing.”

The problem, she added, is “nobody wants us in their backyard.”

Nearly a year has passed since the nonprofit organization lost its spot at a local church and started handing out brown-bag lunches at a few locations in Grover Beach and Oceano, including Ramona Garden Park between Ninth and 10th streets and Ramona and Brighton avenues.

But a group of people — who may or may not patronize People’s Kitchen — are hanging out regularly at the park and prompting complaints from local residents and business owners.

Grover Beach police have responded to numerous calls for service at and around the park and along the West Grand Avenue corridor related to illegal camping, panhandling, trespassing, littering, public intoxication, public urination, public defecation and other problems.

In the first six months of 2014, there were 202 calls to police for homeless-related issues, compared with 159 in all of 2013, police Cmdr. Tim Miller said. And arrests at the park for being drunk in public are already higher than last year (11 this year compared with seven arrests in 2013).

In response, the Grover Beach City Council is looking at a slew of solutions that could lessen the impact to residents and business owners.

The ideas include new rules governing aggressive animals and aggressive panhandling and requiring permits for specific uses at city parks, including food services, as well as the installation of surveillance cameras at the park.

An aggressive animal ordinance will come back to the council for consideration on Monday.

An aggressive panhandling ordinance will require more research and time and probably won’t return to the council until early next year, Grover Beach police Chief Jim Copsey said.

The permit idea will likely take even longer to come back to the council, as it will first go to the city’s Parks, Recreation and Beautification Commission for review.

Police are still working on a plan to partner with the San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority to install surveillance cameras at the transit stop and in the park. The footage could be viewed by police dispatchers and in police vehicles.

The council was less interested in other ideas, including a “feed the meter” program similar to a two-year pilot program San Luis Obispo recently started. Seven designated parking meters, converted to accept donations specifically for the Prado Day Center, have been installed in downtown San Luis Obispo.

Grover Beach police say the majority of calls for service “are related to vagrants who typically are either resistant to making lifestyle changes or suffer from mental illness or addiction.” Copsey said police officers generally make contact with the same 15 to 20 people, whom he described as vagrants.

Miller said the number of homeless individuals in Grover Beach has increased over the past few years, but police don’t know exactly how many homeless people are in the city.

There are 2,357 homeless people living in San Luis Obispo County, and only about 235 receive shelter, according to an annual Homeless Assessment Report prepared by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Homeless Services Oversight Council of San Luis Obispo County counted 2,186 individuals when it conducted a count in January 2013.

Police said it’s not illegal by state law or city ordinance to panhandle, loiter or hang out in the park.

But some residents say they now avoid the park because of problems such as drug activity, fights, garbage being left behind and disturbances.

Copsey said People’s Kitchen provides a helpful service but “brings a whole different kind of mix and use in the park that we haven’t been able to deal with.”

“We are doing everything we can with the staff that we have to address issues along West Grand Avenue and at the park,” Copsey said. “At this point the only way we can increase our presence is with more staff.”

It’s not clear how many people who grab a lunch from People’s Kitchen are involved in the other problems at the park or in the area.

Betsy Ehrler, president of People’s Kitchen, said she makes it clear to patrons that she expects them to behave themselves and tells them they represent People’s Kitchen whether or not they actually take a free lunch.

She said she’ll refuse food to anyone proven to have participated in negative behavior and has in the past banned one man from coming to the kitchen for a month.

The City Council in October 2013 denied People’s Kitchen a permit to operate for eight months at a county-owned lot on South 16th Street. The nonprofit has moved several times in its 22 years of existence.

“The City Council created the problem that we’re in the park,” Ehrler said. “They could have had us in a pretty safe spot. It would have been less visible.”

Jon Akeman, who travels from Pismo Beach to the park daily for lunch, said most people leave an hour or so after lunch is served. He usually takes a nap.

“That’s how I know there’s nobody here,” he said. Akeman, who is homeless, said he’s occasionally seen someone drunk in the park but never observed a fight.

Community concerns have not lessened since the Grover Beach Police Department held a community meeting on the situation at the park in April. The council’s Sept. 15 meeting was the first public hearing on the issue since then.

“It’s very difficult to talk about the fact of feeding people because … as a community, we’re concerned about our fellow human being,” said Stacy Korsgaden, who lives and works in the city. “Realistically though, there’s a problem. Crime has gone up; the feeling of safety has gone down.”

City staff said there have also been complaints from people who have rented facilities at the park. Rentals are down 12 percent compared with 2013, and revenue is down about $7,000.

That decrease may be due to reasons other than the homeless population spending more time at the park, such as at least one group deciding to rent another location for other reasons, Copsey said.

Dee Santos, chair of the parks commission, said People’s Kitchen has been serving in Grover Beach for years and it’s time for another community to get involved.

“Betsy (Ehrler) has done a good job feeding the homeless, but I think it’s time for other cities to step up and help us,” Santos said. “Let’s work together and have some ideas.”

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