Like many threads within the push to address homelessness, the debate over whether to offer free food to people on the streets has gone on for years.

It’s flaring up again thanks to the general surge in homelessness in East Village – where street homelessness has more than tripled in the last four years and where every day, visitors come to dole out sandwiches and burritos – as well as a specific request one local pastor said he received to stop his group’s feeding operation in preparation for the MLB All-Star Game later this month.

The argument in favor of the feedings is obvious: Homeless people are people, and people need to eat.

Experts like Shahera Hyatt of the state research bureau’s California Homeless Youth Project, who’s conducted extensive research on youth homelessness, reject the notion that homelessness is a choice – and that feeding a person who’s hungry encourages it.

“That logic is flawed and ignorant of the historical and systemic decisions we have made as communities, a state and a country not to invest adequately in safety-net programs and affordable, accessible housing for people who are very low-income,” Hyatt said.

The D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless has made similar arguments.

“Meals should not come quid pro quo,” the group has written, but should meet homeless people where they are. People who may not immediately want to enter shelter or receive food from a certain provider still have basic needs.

Those who believe the feedings hurt more than they help fall into two basic camps: Some service providers believe offering food can deter homeless people from seeking other services or interacting with those who might provide them. Others suggest the feedings actually attract more homeless people to the area.

“The homeless know there’s going to be someone from out of the area that will bring food so they end up camping out in that area,” said Joan Wojcik, president of the East Village Residents Group.

Wojcik’s got big-name allies on this side.

The business group Downtown San Diego Partnership, Rock Church and Deacon Jim Vargas, who leads Father Joe’s Village’s, the region’s largest homeless-serving nonprofit, recently partnered on a public service campaign to discourage so-called street feedings.

“It keeps those who are on the streets from accessing services,” Vargas said.

Greg Anglea, who leads North County-based Interfaith Community Services and a regional committee overseeing progress on countywide goals to reduce homelessness, also said simply delivering food isn’t ideal.

“What people who are homeless need more than anything is a home, not necessarily a meal,” Anglea said. “A meal is important but it’s not going to change a life in most instances.”

These aren’t new messages. A controversial homelessness consultant who’s worked in many U.S. cities has long been outspoken about the challenges he believes street feedings present. A former San Diego police leader has said free offerings can enable homeless people.

One pastor claims police are trying to halt his group’s efforts.

Pastor James Merino of the San Diego Dream Center said he’s shutting down his group’s large-scale feeding operation for the month following a police captain’s order to cease in July or expect police to “bring the hammer down” on his group.

The upcoming All-Star Game fueled that demand, Merino said.

The Police Department would not comment on Merino’s claim but a police lieutenant and a spokesman for the city attorney’s office told Voice of San Diego the city hasn’t enforced the city ordinance for years. The city ordinance police once used to discourage feedings has since been amended to address food truck issues and no longer bars free food distribution.

San Diego Police Lt. Wes Morris said officers are encouraging those who run food-sharing operations to partner with homeless-serving nonprofits.

“We try to highlight the advantages of giving what they want to pass out to an entity that would give it with a service,” Morris said.

East Village business owners and those who represent them are increasingly decrying long lines of people awaiting food and the trash those groups leave behind.

Photo provided by David Gapp
Photo provided by David Gapp

Undisputed Downtown co-owner Joel Rocco, whose East Village boxing and mixed martial arts gym sits near several weekly feedings, is exasperated.

“It’s nonstop picking up garbage for me,” Rocco said Tuesday afternoon as he gathered Styrofoam plates, potato chip bags and bottles strewn around his parking lot.

He said dozens gather almost nightly for gifts of food and sometimes, clothes or supplies. He estimates the groups draw about 200 people during his gym’s busiest hours.

Rocco said he’s tried persuading groups to pick up their trash, move away from his business or work with Father Joe’s Villages, which has offered to let other groups use its kitchen or serve their food at one of the group’s other facilities. (Vargas says some groups have taken him up on the offer.)

Only Merino’s organization has opted to move its visits farther away from the gym and always cleans the area before its volunteers move on, Rocco said.

Merino said he made those moves in an attempt to make the best of a difficult situation. Merino acknowledges it would be ideal to move his own feeding events, which often serve about 350, to an indoor facility. He just doesn’t have the budget for a space of his own, or the conscience to stop offering what he can.

“I don’t think we’ll ever leave the streets because we believe in meeting people on the streets where they’re at,” Merino said.

On Monday and Wednesday evenings plus one Saturday a month, Merino said at least 25 volunteers monitor the line at 16th Street and Island Avenue and pray with those who request it. Folks who come to pick up chicken, produce and other items can wait in line for up to two-and-a-half hours.

Merino’s most excited about another component of his program, one he said makes his operation different from many others that descend on East Village.

Merino said the Dream Center has helped at least 250 people get off the streets through the outreach it provides as it serves meals and connected many more with services.

Merino isn’t a fan of groups that simply deliver meals.

“I don’t think that everybody should go down and street feed. If you’re going down there to feed somebody and feel good about yourself, that’s not the right intention,” Merino said. “I really think they should partner with an organization that can not only feed a person but also bring resources to that person, help that person.”

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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