San Diego Unified hands out free food and meals to families outside Clark Middle School after announcing school closures amid the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For years, the existence of so-called “drive-by” food operations in San Diego – makeshift setups in which groups distribute meals to the homeless – have been criticized as well-meaning but ultimately harmful endeavors. Yet now that those efforts have been widely stamped out amid coronavirus shutdowns, homeless San Diegans are going hungry and nonprofits are considering how they might step up to fill the void.

For decades, church and volunteer groups have gone to East Village and other areas with dense homeless populations to hand out sandwiches, burritos and other prepared foods. Many often showed up on the same day – revealing a lack of coordination that frustrated advocates. Others descended on a more impromptu basis – or even simply picked up burgers for homeless people on a whim.

Many restaurants, coffee shops and individuals also quietly handed prepared food or drinks to homeless San Diegans they encountered in their neighborhoods.

County and state orders to stay home and close many businesses during the pandemic changed that overnight – and homeless San Diegans immediately felt the pain.

“I am watching people I care about who are starving to death,” Brian Schultz, who usually stays near the San Diego River, told me earlier this week.

Replicating the disorganized network that Schultz and other homeless San Diegans came to depend on isn’t simple.

Nonprofits that have continued to regularly serve meals – now packaged per coronavirus directives – are rushing to adjust their existing operations to meet new mandates. Many agencies are also grappling with how to sustain those operations as some staff and volunteers are forced to stay home.

And food banks, often considered the go-to resource for large-scale food distribution, are ill-equipped to address the crisis on their own.

The San Diego Food Bank, for example, has historically distributed food that requires preparation – canned goods that need opening, packaged items that require heating – and those living on the streets don’t have a place or supplies to prepare it.

“We’re basically giving people groceries. We’re not taking it out of its original state,” Food Bank CEO Jim Floros said. “We’re not opening the can.”

Both Floros and Feeding San Diego CEO Vince Hall said they’d be willing to try to further bolster and adjust their offerings to try help address the hunger crisis playing out on San Diego’s streets but said they would need to partner with homeless service providers to get the food out to people living in streets and canyons.

“The bulk of our approach in solving hunger lies in that network of charities and faith-based organizations who operate programs at the neighborhood level, and that includes the homeless service agencies,” Hall said.

Amanda Schultz Brochu, senior director of programs at the San Diego Hunger Coalition, said her organization is consulting food banks and pantries to assess the support they need to meet the county’s exploding food needs.

In coming days, Schultz Brochu said the Hunger Coalition plans to try to contact the region’s more than 500 food pantries operating out of venues that range from church closets to community clinics to understand how they have been affected by the coronavirus and assess how they could adjust to respond.

“In a lot of ways, we’re relying on our partners to share with us what they’re seeing and how they’re needing to shift,” Schultz Brochu said. “We’re doing everything we can to get them resources, and information and best practices, and helping them think creatively about how to change and how to connect with people.”

In the meantime, she said, homeless San Diegans may be able to more immediately access food resources with a recently streamlined CalFresh food stamps application process or by showing up at one of the county’s family resource centers, where limited staff are posted outside to take those applications.

Some groups are already trying to do more to directly deliver food to homeless San Diegans.

The Duwara Consciousness Foundation, Living Water Church of the Nazarene and Voices of Our City Choir – all of which are operating in East Village – are among those that have dramatically ramped up their offerings.

The Duwara Consciousness Foundation gives out free meals to homeless residents downtown during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

Jonathan Castillo, chief regional officer for PATH, said the nonprofit’s homeless outreach workers have started taking non-perishable food items such as peanut butter and some meals to camps in central San Diego, East County and along the San Diego River in recent weeks as food resources have disintegrated.

“We are doing outreach to make sure we are connecting with as many people as possible to make sure they are informed and providing food as much as we can,” said Castillo. He said the nonprofit is mapping individuals and camps to make sure it can continue to bring food to them.

Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy, whose organization has been consumed with moving its shelter clients into the Convention Center shelter the past couple weeks, said he began having workers take excess prepared meals and other items not eaten at the Convention Center to camps in National City, Chula Vista and Hillcrest after learning of food gaps from Voice of San Diego.

Other nonprofits have rallied to maintain their existing services.

Father Joe’s Villages has continued to serve daily meals at its East Village campus as the pandemic has escalated and the Third Avenue Charitable Organization – best known as TACO – has also continued to serve food downtown twice a week.

But all those efforts can’t immediately fill the gap created by the loss of pop-up feeding operations.

Castillo suggested a corps of “essential volunteers” working in conjunction with nonprofits could give existing efforts a shot in the arm.

Jim Lovell, TACO’s executive director, questioned whether nonprofit or local government agencies could convene groups – perhaps virtually – that had previously distributed food to homeless San Diegans to see if they might be willing to reconfigure their efforts to safely distribute food during the pandemic.

“Those volunteers have to be feeling like, ‘Get me back out there,’” Lovell said. “I would think if there was a way that it could be packaged to say – ‘this [practice] provides safety across the board’ – there might be some of those groups that would be willing to come back.”

McElroy agreed that a collective discussion about how to get food to needy homeless San Diegans is crucial.

“Who’s gonna get it out there?” he said. “Maybe we should all get around the table and talk about it.”

If those conversations proceed, enduring debates about whether to offer free food to homeless people – and the best format for that service – are likely to re-emerge.

Deacon Jim Vargas, CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, has long advocated against ad-hoc street-level operations and has instead argued food service should be linked with other homeless services.

He is among the local service providers who have long said street-level feedings can deter homeless people from seeking other services or interacting with those who might provide them.

Vargas said this week he believes food operations tied to services remain the best approach during the coronavirus pandemic as the city, county and Regional Task Force on the Homeless rush to provide more shelter opportunities, including at the Convention Center.

“Now is the time where we can really capitalize on the fact that people are looking for those resources and say, ‘OK, we have them for you. We have them for you at this convention center,’” Vargas said. “And I think that will be better for them in the long run.”

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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