DOWNTOWN — During the holiday season, big meals and shopping dominate the American psyche, filling up advertising pages with the new thing to buy and the delicious recipes to attempt on family and friends.
When those two things mix on public streets, however, it can cause friction.
Business owners in Downtown went to the City Council in November for help with what they see as a growing number of meal services for the homeless in the busy shopping district.
The meals are provided by UCLA Food Not Bombs, Campus Crusades UCLA and Santa Monica Homeless Outreach, according to Debbie Lee, vice president of Downtown Santa Monica Inc., the nonprofit that runs the Third Street Promenade for City Hall.
They set up on the street and attract between 75 and 100 people, Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica Inc., told council members.
“It just gets larger and larger because the word has gotten out that these things are happening,” she said.
It’s perfectly legal for charitable organizations, or anybody else, to set up shop in a public park or other area and provide free food, no matter the clientele.
If the gathering comes in under 150 people, you don’t even need a city permit. But meals for the homeless come with a stigma.
It’s about the perception of safety, Rawson said. When feedings occur, homeless wait for food on the public streets, which can make promenade visitors uncomfortable despite an active police presence.
“We have the reality of safety, for sure,” Rawson said. “We want the City Council to look at this and make decisions about where the right place is to provide services.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that City Hall has intervened in the provision of homeless services in public spaces.
The organization Hand to Hand used to conduct a meal service every Saturday on the lawn in front of City Hall.
Hand to Hand was the brainchild of then-City Attorney Robert Myers. He and other city employees began the Saturday service because that was the day that no one else was serving meals, said Cliff Marcussen, president of the Hand to Hand feeding project’s board of directors.
Seven years ago, however, City Hall expressed its desire to bring the feedings indoors to link the feedings to other services available from City Hall, said Natasha Guest, an administrative analyst with City Hall.
Some members of the homeless services community were happy to accept the offer, but felt there were other reasons.
“They obviously had plans to expand the tourist area around the promenade, the pier and Palisades Park,” Marcussen said.
Inviting a crowd of homeless in the middle of the proposed tourist destination did not fit the bill.
Hand to Hand accepted City Hall’s invitation to “go indoors,” first to a building that was later destroyed for the Big Blue Bus center and then to a partially-enclosed section of the OPCC Access Center.
It’s a tight fit, but City Hall has promised more “appropriate” accommodations, Marcussen said.
“We value our partnership with City Hall and being a part of the continuum of care,” he said. “Because of that, we can better help people who come to us for meals … being part of the continuum helps us to connect with people better.”
Not all providers decided to work with City Hall.
Peggy Lee Kennedy, a longtime volunteer with Food Not Bombs Santa Monica/Venice, recalled the negotiations to “go indoors” with little pleasure.
Food Not Bombs serves a different kind of clientele, homeless that don’t feel comfortable going to the established providers. Usually, volunteers go out guerilla-style with a cart handing out sandwiches.
“I think it’s good if they’re trying to pair people together and create a communication,” Kennedy said. “But forcing people inside? It may not be applicable.”
Food Not Bombs considered working with OPCC, but declined when volunteers realized that they wouldn’t be able to continue their schedule of feedings.
“We were serving on Tuesday afternoon when they tried to make us come inside, but there was no facility available on Tuesday afternoon,” Kennedy said.
Moving groups inside is no longer an option with the current lay of the land, Guest said.
“We reached capacity there,” she said. “All the feedings that the agencies can handle have moved indoors.”
The business community remains hopeful that City Hall can work something out, Rawson said.
“We’d like a renewed effort to talk to people again about helping to connect them with social services, talking about something that can be productive to everybody,” she said.