The crowd begins gathering in the Long Beach church courtyard an hour before the meal begins. Wearing torn jeans and wrapped in dirty blankets, the people lounge on concrete benches, chatting idly among themselves.
Later they enter the sanctuary for a sermon by an evangelical Christian minister. Then they file into the church basement to partake of the ritual for which most have come: a hot meal of rice, beans and salad scooped from huge vats and eaten at long tables.
"The food's not exactly extravagant, but it keeps us from being hungry," said Paula Shaw, 35, who like most of the other diners is homeless.
Welcome to Christian Outreach Appeal. Here at the corner of 3rd Street and Linden Avenue, 1,500 hot meals are served to indigents each week and about 700 boxes of food are given away. City officials, attending a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony marking an expansion of the program, praised it as an important link in the city's battle against homelessness. "I think it's great," Mayor Ernie Kell said in an interview. "Really outstanding."
Nearby residents, however, are less enthusiastic. The program, they say, has virtually ruined their neighborhood by attracting vagrants who continuously block the sidewalks, wake them with loud noises early in the morning, panhandle in front of their houses, sleep on their properties, urinate in their bushes and defecate in the alleys.
"I feel invaded," said Betsy Peele, who lives down the street. "I have no privacy anymore and it really hurts."
Said Bruce Johnson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years: "The mess around here is constant. This is ludicrous."
The result is a standoff between neighbors who want the homeless center to leave and program administrators who say they would like to be doing even more for the homeless. At the heart of the controversy are the homeless people themselves, who gather by the hundreds each day to eat and to pray in the once-quiet sanctuary.
There were not always so many of them.
Ten years ago when the 63-year-old building was Christ Lutheran Church, nearby residents say, problems were minimal in the working-class neighborhood that has a high percentage of apartment buildings and single-family rental units inhabited by families and senior citizens.
Then in 1984 came Christian Outreach Appeal, an independent nondenominational service organization begun on a shoestring a few years earlier to send donated food and clothing to indigents in Mexico. Today the nonprofit organization runs a variety of services out of the three-story church, including a job-referral program, regular worship services and daily canned and dry food giveaways.
The recent ribbon cutting marked the opening of a new "transitional house" for indigents who are newly employed. The two-bedroom house, formerly the church parsonage, accommodates up to eight men for as long as 60 days while they search for permanent housing. Toilet, shower and laundry facilities have been added.
Run on an annual budget of about $690,000, the center uses private and corporate donations, as well as contributions from area churches and a $14,200 grant from the city.
But the more successful it has become in attracting the homeless to its doors, volunteers say, the more complaints it has received from neighbors.
"People get drunk and they get rowdy. It takes very little provocation to start a hassle," said Arnold Thomas, who preaches twice weekly at the center.
Attendance at daily religious services is not required in exchange for food, according to Christian Outreach Appeal officials, but Thomas said: "We just compel them to come in. We make it almost mandatory."
And although his sermons generally center on the traditional Christian message of salvation and redemption, the preacher said, he also stresses discipline and self-control to help improve his listeners' behavior in the neighborhood.
According to Mary Jensen, a spokeswoman for the Long Beach Police Department, that behavior has not resulted in an inordinate number of complaints to the department. Yet during a routine stop one recent afternoon, a patrolman on the beat asked a group of homeless people congregating in front of the Christian Outreach Appeal building to disperse lest they offend the sensibilities of a passing resident out walking her dog. "You have a right to be here, but these people want you out," he said, indicating the neighbors with a wide sweep of his hand.
While virtually everyone in the neighborhood has heard rumors of a petition being circulated to oust the homeless center, no one seems to have seen it.
Meanwhile, Athos Monteclaro, a Southern Baptist minister who serves as the center's administrator, has organized a volunteer security force to patrol the neighborhood 12 hours a day and to minimize the negative behavior of some of the homeless people. "We are really interested in solving these problems," Monteclaro said. "I don't think anyone could say of me that I haven't been responsive."
What many of the neighbors do say is that the security patrol is ineffective. Limited in its scope and resources, they say, it is like a Band-Aid on a shark wound.
And so an uncomfortable truce of sorts seems to have been forged. On one side are the neighbors, who complain constantly about the center's presence but appear to have made no organized effort to challenge it. On the other side are Christian Outreach Appeal administrators, who say they are concerned about the neighbors' feelings but are often accused of being insensitive to them.
"I realize that the group is trying to do something good," resident Johnson said, "but, my God, they should be responsible."
Said Monteclaro: "(The neighbors') attitude is that we shouldn't be here because we are disturbing the peace. That isn't Christian. If we wouldn't help, who would?"