Taking a load off: A homeless man rests on the Third Street Promenade, a popular hangout. (File photo)

The decade-long ritual of serving a vegan meal to local homeless people on the Third Street Promenade each Thursday night will move to the Salvation Army’s Fourth Street location this fall, as part of a “delicate” compromise between the organizers, two nonprofits, the City and Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.

“We’re extraordinarily grateful to all who are involved in this program who have come to the table to continue to provide nutritious, vegan meals to our homeless community and a comfortable and safe environment,” said Downtown Santa Monica, Inc, CEO Kathleen Rawson.

International nonprofit Food Not Bombs started the weekly meal service over a decade ago.  Each night volunteers cook enough food for about a hundred homeless people. Coupled with the move to the Salvation Army, local nonprofit West Coast Care will provide a representative to help those in need find housing and other social services. The DTSM ambassadors will also provide logistical support.

“Speaking as a volunteer, I can say that our location will change; our mission will not,” said Food Not Bombs volunteer Tom Weitzel. “We serve on Thursday nights to offer a few moments of respect and community along with some healthy food to neighbors less fortunate than us.”

While it has always taken place at the north end of the Promenade, the group had recently moved to the front of the former Barnes and Noble location, where city officials are anxious for a new business to move in.  Mayor Ted Winterer told the Daily Press prospective tenants had looked at the property but cited the homeless as a deterrent to signing a lease.

On Tuesday, Winterer and Mayor Pro-Tempore Gleam Davis will urge the City Council to allocate $20,000 of discretionary funds to the Salvation Army for infrastructure improvements to host the meal service. The nonprofit already has a meal service on weekends but will use the money to improve its restroom facilities among other repairs.

“We see these individuals all of the time,” said Lt. Erin Wikle. She said the partnership will benefit those who rely on the free dinner by connecting them with more services. “I don’t think that we can leave it with just providing a meal. It is essential to be connecting individuals who need help with resources.”

The move indoors will cap a long, storied history between Food Not Bombs and the City of Santa Monica over serving free meals on the city’s most popular tourist destination. In 2002, the City passed a law that said “no person shall distribute or serve food to the public on a public street or sidewalk without City authorization,” that carried a $1,000 fine and possible jail time.  Food Not Bombs protested and filed a lawsuit that went all the way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The rule has since been clarified and nonprofits are not required to get a permit or license to distribute food as long as they don’t interfere with use of the sidewalks.

Sixteen years later, more people are homeless in Santa Monica than at any other time since the city began keeping count.  The number of unsheltered homeless in Santa Monica increased 11 percent to 646 people in 2018, according to the city’s annual report on the homeless.

Mayor Winterer said the new partnership between multiple nonprofits, including West Coast Care, will provide long-term help to those in need. West Coast Care estimates they helped 474 people find housing in 2017, and got 530 people off the streets through programs, shelters or employment. The Santa Monica-based non-profit also helps connect transient individuals with their family and provides bus tickets home.

“These services are not muffins and massages,” said Mayor Winterer. “The services are intended to get people off the streets.”

Volunteers will continue to feed the homeless on the Promenade while the Salvation Army makes the physical improvements. Rawson said she expects the move to happen in the coming months.


Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press

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