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Outreach resumes on state beach

Settlement lets group return to Doheny to feed the needy.

September 16, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

After initial threats of arrest, members of an Orange County charity were back on Doheny State Beach in Dana Point on Monday afternoon, feeding needy locals under a legal settlement reached last week.

The settlement bars park rangers from enforcing a regulation restricting assemblies and demonstrations for three years, effective immediately. Under the regulation, such gatherings required park officials' permission and stipulated that the activity should not "substantially interfere" with park use.

"I'm delighted that we're able to resume feeding at Doheny, where we can serve our guests at picnic tables as opposed to on the street," said Patti Church, president of Welcome INN, the nonprofit organization that sued the state. "There's a little more dignity when you can sit down and eat a meal at a table."

Parks officials will not "discriminate against any particular group as long as they come to the park and follow the same day-use rules that anybody else would need to follow," said Roy Stearns of the California Department of Parks and Recreation. "For now, these people are free to come to the park as any other group."

The group filed a federal lawsuit against the state parks department in May after a park ranger blocked an attempt to serve food at the park, labeling it an unlawful assembly.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Welcome INN, argued that the regulation was "fatally over-broad" and interfered with volunteers' 1st Amendment rights, said Hector Villagra, director of the union's Orange County office. Under the settlement, state parks officials have the option to revise the assembly regulation into one "that can be applied fairly and consistently," Villagra said.

The settlement also requires the state to pay the group's legal fees of $23,000.

As a result of the settlement, volunteers from Welcome INN, which stands for Interfaith Needs Network, can resume serving free meals to homeless and low-income people at the state beach. The group has been helping the needy of south Orange County for about 20 years, but for the last few years was operating without a fixed location, bouncing between yards and cul-de-sacs.

Gathering in the park keeps the group "away from private property," said Jim Seiler, founding president and current treasurer of Welcome INN.

The group plans to provide food at the park Monday through Friday. Church said it's a relief "to know that we have a place where we can go and not have to worry about repercussions."


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