Homelessness is a big problem throughout the valley. It’s not just in large cities like Bakersfield and Fresno though. Smaller towns and rural counties are facing their own challenges in serving those in need with food, shelter and often mental health and substance abuse treatment. But what happens when finding a place to do all those things runs into community opposition?
That’s just what happened this month in Merced. After being shut down over a week for the lack of a home, a popular program that serves food to those on the street is finally back in operation, thanks to the assistance of another area church congregation.
Since 1991 the Merced County Rescue Mission has been providing shelter, services and ministry to the homeless in a leafy neighborhood just a couple of blocks off of Main Street. Bruce Metcalf runs the program:
“The Merced County Rescue Mission serves about 150,000 meals every year, and we serve meals three times a day, seven days a week. And we provide meals for people who are hungry homeless people off the street, as well as we take meals out to other locations, and we also provide meals for our recovery programs and for our families that are homeless,” says Metcalf.
You might remember Merced as the home to the newest campus of the University of California system, a ray of hope not just for this town, but for the entire San Joaquin Valley. Merced though was also one of the communities hit hardest by the housing crisis and the Great Recession, challenges the city is only now starting to emerge from.
The latest official tally shows there are more than five hundred homeless people in the county, many without shelter. That number has dropped in recent years, but Metcalf says the 15 bed shelter has seen demand grow. The hot meals program alone has increased 10 to 20 percent in recent years.
But according to some people in the community, that growth has brought with it problems and conflict. And on October 1st, the walk-up hot meals program itself became homeless.
“We are moving the meals from our present location for people who are homeless off the street, because some of our neighbors are uncomfortable with the people who come for meals. And so we are trying to be good neighbors and are moving to another location,” says Metcalf.
And being a good neighbor can sometimes be a challenge, especially when you serve one of the most vulnerable populations in the community. Finding a new location can even be more difficult. And without a new site, Metcalf says he had no choice but to shut the program down at least temporarily.
“Before we quit serving, we gave people lists of places where they can get breakfast and lunch everyday. And the only meal that there is not a place to get meals is the evening dinner meal. And that’s why we’re anxious to get started again,” says Metcalf.
So what about the complaints from the community that Metcalf mentioned? One of the neighbors is right across the street - the Central Presbyterian Church. Ken Robbins is an elder there. He says his church has long been a supporter of the Rescue Mission. The church he says essentially owns the building the mission occupies.
“They stay there for a dollar, we contribute significantly to their mission budget, several of our people serve on their boards of directors, and we have been neighbors and missionaries in the downtown area of Merced together for a couple of decades, says Robbins.”
But while the church he says is supportive of the mission’s ministry and shelter work, the hot meals program has brought with it problems.
“The piece of the program that began to become a problem, it’s not that they don’t make meals there. What was happening was a lot of folks who were not members of the discipleship program at the Rescue Mission they were feeding, they were handing meals out a couple of times a day, to folks who would come and gather there and then leave. And that program grew to the point where it began to have issues with other uses of the property,” says Robbins.
He says as more people began to use the services, some had interactions with members of his church that weren’t neighborly.
“They would interface with kids or folks in the evening, or they would not be discrete on where they used restroom facilities. That all happened out in the streets and the sidewalks,” says Robbins.
He says the church tried to work with the mission to fix the situation but things didn’t improve.
“For instance there have been a couple of occasions where public nudity has occurred there. Not in malicious way, but people in the alley changing clothes and whatnot while children were in the facility. Or we find human waste on steps or in elevators. It isn’t necessarily these are bad people, there just aren’t the kinds of total facilities available to service all those needs all in that same place,” says Robbins.
For his part, Metcalf admits there have been problems, and is blunt when he describes the situation.
Metcalf: “Some of the people that attend there with their young children are simply uncomfortable with some of the guests that we serve,” says Robbins.
The issue came to a head earlier this summer, when the church leadership and Rescue Mission staff sat down in search of a solution. The idea was to find a new home, and move the hot meals program out of the Canal Street location by October 1st, while other programs like the shelter would stay behind.
“It wasn’t our idea to close the facility but rather to make it mobile, to try to relive some of the problems that occurred with multiple uses of the whole property. But neither the city nor the county liked that idea,” says Robbins.
The church would have provided two vehicles to help make it happen, but Metcalf says the Rescue Mission itself doesn’t want to go mobile.
“That’s Ken’s idea. That is not the mission’s idea. And we are not going to do that. The city does not want us to be serving meals under bridges and in public parks. Because that simply exacerbates the problem of homeless people of being in places where it’s not appropriate,” says Metcalf.
Then as the October 1st deadline approached it looked like the mission had finally found a site. A lot downtown that was affiliated with another faith based group could have been a temporary feeding location. But it too met with opposition, this time from business groups.
“There was some concern about people in the area wouldn’t be happy with that location either, and that was really a temporary location place so that we could not miss serving at all, or miss just a few days,” says Metcalf.
It seemed that no one in Merced wanted to be neighbors with the people the hot meals program serves.
Finally though, a bit of good news. On Monday night, after being shuttered for over a week, the mission was again serving hot dinners to hundreds of people. Only this time with a new congregation in a new home, the Calvary Temple Assembly of God Church at 10th and R Streets, just on the other side of Highway 99.
Bruce Metcalf is more than relieved.
“They have a food ministry giving food boxes to people who are low income and they were very excited about the possibility of expanding that to help people. So we’re able to use their facilities and serve people inside in a wonderful room with restrooms and so we’re just cooperating with them and we will do all of the meal service. We’re excited about being able to do this together,” says Metcalf.
Metcalf says he’s still working with the city and county to find a permanent campus that can house all of the missions activities, including the ones still based at the old location. And there’s one last twist to this story. Central Presbyterian Church is providing the mission with vehicles to transport workers and food to the new feeding location.