These last several weeks have been challenging in a number of ways, some of which I have highlighted during a recent sermon and in requests for help. Specifically, this has been related to our weekly Project Grace ministries. (More information on our Project Grace ministries can be found here.)
As we have experienced some negative feedback from a few vocal neighbors related to our Project Grace ministries, I thought it would be helpful for our membership to understand how we have engaged these complaints and how we have attempted to engage our community. When it comes to individual complaints (generally by telephone or by visit), our office and volunteers work hard to hear out our neighbors and to respond immediately. To be clear, this is not a regular occurrence. My personal practice is to also invite the community member to come on a Wednesday evening to meet some of our guests and to get a sense of all that happens here each week.
I have also been contacted several times by a local Neighborhood Watch group as well as a few neighbors who have specifically been critical of all of the churches offering meal programs to the community. Through this dialogue, a moderated group of these community leaders as well as leaders from all of the congregations serving meals on a weekly basis was formed in the summer of 2017. While the first several meetings seemed fruitful, the community leaders who had been joining in the conversation stopped participating. Several subsequent attempts to contact these leaders to re-engage in dialogue has not resulted in a return to conversation. In the meantime, the church leaders – as well as the Executive Director of PB Street Guardians – continue to meet on a monthly basis.
Some time after these meetings were initiated, post cards began to show up around neighborhoods in the community from an anonymous organization called Concerned Citizens of Pacific Beach. One side asks the question, “What can you do to help our homeless neighbors?” On the back on bold letters on top are the words, “Please do not support the church meals.” Following this headline are three statements that bear response:
“Meals contribute to the Hepatitis A epidemic when individuals don’t have access to bathrooms & instead use yards & public areas. They also leave behind needles & trash.”
We have seen social media posts accusing us of serving a meal without offering access to restroom facilities. This is demonstrably false. We have also distributed literature on Hep. A, hygiene kits, and through our partnerships with local organizations provided hundreds of Hep. A vaccines.
“Meals create unsafe conditions for attendees, volunteers & our community because sex offenders, drug addicts & dealers, bike thieves, & other criminals attend. They expose families & community members to criminal activities.”
My entire family attends, and we have never felt unsafe. On church property, we do not allow drug or alcohol use, weapons of any kind, violent or threatening behavior, or any other criminal activity. Anything of this nature results in immediate expulsion from the property and/or calling the police. It is also worth noting that not everyone who participates in these meals lives on the street. A number of nearby residents benefit from these meals as well as retirees, families, and more.
“Meals solve an immediate need but do not transition individuals from homeless to housed. Ask your pastor how many people he/she has helped get into housing.”
We partner with a number of local organizations with “wraparound services” to help people to avoid or escape homelessness. These partners help people sign up for MediCAL and Cal-Fresh. There are Social Workers and psychologists on site nearly every week, as well as a Case Worker. There are organizations that specialize in helping veterans escape homelessness, and we even offer ESL classes after most meals. I can think of a number of people who have been helped through these and partner programs in the last six months alone. In addition, our most dedicated volunteers who help set up for the meal and clean up afterwards have the opportunity through our Work Benefit program to have access to a shower and laundry facilities.
Together, the full spectrum of these services offers support so that our most vulnerable neighbors can avoid or escape homelessness. I believe strongly that if we can find ways to work together as a community, we can collectively and collaboratively find ways to serve those who are most vulnerable here in Pacific Beach.