A coalition of churches began serving dinner Monday to several hundred homeless people in an effort to fill the gap left by the recent closing of the downtown San Diego Rescue Mission.
Officials estimate that, once word of the new program spreads, as many as 500 people will show up for the hot meals being served at the Catholic Worker Inc. at 343 16th St., a downtown area dotted with warehouses.
"We want to be able to pick up the slack," Richard Shanor, representing United Methodist Urban Ministry, said at a press conference in the Catholic Worker dining hall.
With the closing of the downtown Rescue Mission last week, there has been widespread concern that many of the homeless and street people who relied on the facility would go hungry. Realizing that something had to be done quickly, a group of churches--with help from public donations--agreed to share the cost of a new dinner program at the Catholic Worker.
"We feel there is a crisis here," Shanor said, noting that it may take several more weeks before the Rescue Mission is able to move to its new location at 1150 J St. and resume serving meals. "It was felt in our various churches . . . that help was needed now."
The new dinner program will begin each day at 5 p.m. and continue until 6:30 p.m., or until all are served. While the churches are banding together to share costs, Shanor said, they are seeking $10,000 in donations to help pay for the meals, which cost $1 each. They also are seeking volunteers to help operate the program.
Shanor emphasized that the new program is temporary and will continue only as long as the Rescue Mission is closed.
The Catholic Worker normally serves only lunches. But there, too, the effects of the mission's closure have been felt, as the number of midday meals has increased from about 200 to 325.
The Rescue Mission, which served 500 to 700 meals a day and housed 87 homeless men each night, is closed because of financial difficulties. The mission is $1.45 million in debt, but mission officials say they can be back in operation at their new facility if they can come up with $400,000.
James Flohr, the mission's executive director, said Monday that his group has raised about $195,000 so far, but added that he can't even guess when the mission will reopen.
"We're thankful others are taking up the slack," Flohr said. "But as far as our situation, it's just as it has been. As funding comes in, then we'll get closer" to reopening.
While he is grateful for the new dinner program at the Catholic Worker, Flohr said, he is worried that no one has stepped in to provide emergency shelter. "The thing that hurts is the housing," he said.
Frank Landerville of the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless said Monday that his group, which is supporting the new dinner program, is not set up to respond to emergency housing needs. It is instead seeking longer-range solutions to San Diego's homeless problem, he said.
With its opening Monday night, the Catholic Worker is now the city's largest provider of free meals. But several other organizations also have expanded their meal programs.
Jay Farris, a staff member at God's Extended Hand, at 16th and Island streets, just a few blocks from the Catholic Worker, said Monday that his organization feeds about 100 people each night, an increase of 20 to 30 meals. The number of people showing up for lunch also is greater, he said, rising by about a third to 80.
St. Vincent de Paul, also on 16th Street, has also seen an increase in demand, now serving breakfast to 250 people. Before the mission closed, it normally provided breakfast to 150 people.
Churches helping to sponsor the dinner program at the Catholic Worker include the United Methodist Urban Ministry, First Presbyterian Church, Episcopal Community Services, Catholic Community Services, Lutheran Social Services, Presbytery of San Diego and United Church of Christ.
Shanor said donations can be made through any of the sponsoring churches or to "Meals," P.O. Box 178300, San Diego, CA 92117.