WHITTIER — A church that saved the city's only food pantry for the poor from closing a year ago now says it no longer can house the program because it has grown too big.
But Sue Schoensiegel, director of the Ecumenical Food Center, claims the issue is not space. She said a "handful" of members at St. Matthias Episcopal Church are concerned that the center that feeds poor and homeless people is attracting an "undesirable element" to church grounds. She said pressure from within the congregation has caused the Rev. Chester Howe of St. Matthias to ask the food center to move.
"Some in this church," Schoensiegel said, "are close to turning their back on the city's poor."
It Feeds 700 a Week
In less than a year, the number of people the center feeds has doubled to 700 a week. Because of that growth, Howe said, the center has outgrown an office and storage area the Uptown Village church provides at no cost.
"If the program were to remain here, it would have to be curtailed," said Howe, rector of the church. "And I want no part of that. This city needs the food center. But it just won't work here anymore."
St. Matthias has not issued a deadline for moving, although Schoensiegel has told church elders in a letter that she plans to be gone by Jan. 15. Schoensiegel said she has searched since September for new quarters, but so far has been unable to find a suitable site to relocate the center--a program that the city's Social Services Commission ranks as the most important when it comes to feeding Whittier's disadvantaged and homeless.
She said the food center's facilities at St. Matthias are more than adequate, and she contends that the church agreed to let the center remain indefinitely when it moved from a tiny, back-lot office on Greenleaf Avenue in Uptown Village where it was paying $200 a month in rent. The old setup was too small, but Schoensiegel said the operation could not afford to lease a larger office.
"They welcomed us back last year with open arms," she said. "Now they're showing us the door."
The food center is operated by the Whittier Area Ecumenical Council of Churches--20 churches and one synagogue--with some support from the city and civic clubs.
Differences over why the food center must move again, city officials say, underscore the problems associated with a nonprofit group trying to feed the poor on a budget made up largely of donations.
On the street, word often spreads quickly about programs like Schoensiegel's. Because no questions are asked in exchange for food, the lines grow longer each week, said John DeNoon, chairman of the city's Social Services Commission. Soon the program becomes a magnet for the disadvantaged, some of whom remain in the area, and DeNoon says that can be unsettling to residents.
Safety Concerns Raised
Schoensiegel said that several members of the church, located at 7056 Washington Ave., have told her they no longer feel safe at St. Matthias because of the people who frequent the food center, even on Sunday when it is closed.
Others in the congregation have expressed concern about the safety of children attending the Oralingua School for the Hearing Impaired, which operates just down the hall from the food center at St. Matthias.
Although church officials and Whittier police said there have been no reports of trouble at the school or church, Schoensiegel said she understands why some fear the center's customers.
"These people have been living on the street for weeks," said Schoensiegel, a member of St. Matthias for seven years. "They are dirty, they smell and their clothes are threads. They are not pleasant to be around.
"But any church should be a refuge at all times . . . for the poor, the rich, the middle class, the mentally handicapped, the drug addict or the homeless. It takes a lot of understanding and guts to deal with those who are desperate."
Howe said St. Matthias, located in a largely residential area, is not abandoning its commitment to the city's poor, which began almost a decade ago with the food center. It started slowly; about 10 bags of groceries a month were given away. But the need grew rapidly and the church was soon distributing nearly a thousand bags a week to several hundred people. Finally, St. Matthias turned to the Ecumenical Council, which took over the program in 1983. Schoensiegel, who is paid $500 a month by the council, was then hired to run it.
"There are people in this city who are sleeping in cars, in parks and in doorways, and those people need help," Howe said. "But the food center is just too big now. Objections have been raised about the program, but it is the program's size that concerns me most."
Despite concerns about the food center, Howe said there are no plans to end the church's afternoon soup hour that serves 20 to 40 people a day Monday through Friday.