Still operating without a permanent home, the South County People’s Kitchen will go before the Grover Beach Planning Commission on Tuesday seeking permission to occupy its current site for a year.
The organization that feeds hot meals to 80 to 100 homeless and needy people a day has been serving them from a vacant lot off South 16th Street for about a month now under a temporary use permit.
Betsy Ehrler, chairwoman of the People’s Kitchen board, said she expects some opposition from the neighborhood at the Planning Commission hearing.
But she also hopes that won’t be the case when the commission considers the application for a conditional use permit in the meeting set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“We’ve done our best to be really good neighbors,” Ehrler said, noting the kitchen operates only a short time each day. “We’re just in there and we’re out.
“But there’s a lot of misinformation going around,” she added, noting one rumor is that the People’s Kitchen plans to build a permanent facility at the site, which simply is not true.
“We would only be allowed there until the end of one year,” she said of the conditional use permit the organization is seeking.
The current site is behind the former County Health Department building, where the People’s Kitchen operated for a few months in early 2008.
“We’re kind of where we were before, but this time we’re outdoors,” Ehrler said. “It’s kind of gravelly. We’re going to put down some decomposed granite so when it rains — if it ever rains — it won’t be so muddy.”
She said a Boy Scout installed pavers in the serving area as his Eagle project, and wind screens are put up to protect the volunteer servers.
But the group has held off on erecting any kind of overhead protection until the rains actually start.
“The state fire marshal said we can have a canopy up only for 180 days, and we don’t want to be in violation of that 180-day limit,” Ehrler said.
While approval of a conditional use permit would allow the People’s Kitchen to operate on the vacant lot for a year, its board members would prefer to find a more permanent home before then.
But that’s a dream they’ve been pursuing for some 22 years now, and it has yet to come true.
The People’s Kitchen is operated by a coalition of 18 churches whose volunteers cook food in their homes or church facilities, then transport it to the serving site.
On average, volunteers dish out 3,000 meals a month, although that varies with the season and the state of the economy.
In the last five years, the serving site has bounced among at least four locations.
Neighbors around one site complained the operation lowered property values because it drew “undesirables, drunks and drug users” who got into fights and committed vandalism.
But volunteers said those problems were rare, and Ehrler has noted the food served by the People’s Kitchen may be the only meal many of its clients will get all day.
That has drawn the program its share of boosters. One year, a formerly homeless mother collected more than 600 signatures on a petition supporting the operation.
Other services are sometimes provided by individual church groups.
For example, the First United Methodist Church of Arroyo Grande hands out donated clothing and has distributed more than 8,800 pairs of socks to date.
To help the hungry, the church also operates an emergency Food Pantry from 1 to 3 p.m. Mondays at 275 N. Halcyon Road.
Those and other services ranging from medical and dental to occupational and educational would be available at a single location if the 5Cities Homeless Coalition can come up with the funds and a location to build a homeless services center.
In the meantime, Ehrler hopes someone will offer the People’s Kitchen a site where it can operate indefinitely.
“We are continuously and always looking for a permanent location, Ehrler said.
Most of the homeless and neediest people in the South County live in south Grover Beach and Oceano, including the dunes.
So a location in industrial or commercial zoning in either of those areas would be ideal, Ehrler said.