November 10 – As he has for a year now, Alabama
awoke last Saturday hung over and ambled in the morning sunlight
to City Hall, where he knew he could count on a free meal passed
out on the front lawn.
But when he got there, he found the sweeping greens deserted.
“Someone told me the meals were no longer at the courthouse
and to go down the street,” said the elderly man, his red
eyes peering into the day from under a battered baseball cap.
“So here I am.”
|Alabama was among the nearly
150 homeless who showed up for a free meal at OPCC last weekend.
(Photos by Olin Ericksen)
Like Alabama, nearly 150 homeless drove battered live-in vehicles,
pushed cramped shopping carts, rode weighed-down bikes or simply
hauled everything they had on the their back down to the OPCC
Center, 612 Colorado, to quell the pangs of hunger last weekend
– a dramatic shift for people who live by routine.
Trading space and light for tables and promises of better service
connections, the building is now ground zero for two of the largest
feeding programs – Helping Other People Eat and Hand-to-Hand
– which last Saturday moved indoors for the first time after
nearly 15 years of handing out meals outdoors.
The move also brings the City and feeding groups together for
the first time to break bread after years of litigious relations.
“We’ve been looking for a way for years to work together
with the City and by them identifying this facility, it has really
made that possible,” said Cliff Marcussen, a soft-spoken
bear of a man and a board member of Hand-to-Hand.
Now, after nearly six months of negotiations with Santa Monica
City Manager Lamont Ewell and former County Supervisor Ed Edelmen,
its “homeless czar,” Marcussen and a battery of volunteers
from Agape Church steered scores of hungry homeless through a
secure back entrance on Seventh Street for the inaugural meal.
On the menu: a simple sack lunch, fruit, donuts, muffins, coffee
and orange juice. Families, couples, men and women of different
ages and races filed in a few at a time, while police stood on
the street over.
A blue serene interior, carpeting, tables and a fresh coat of
paint on the walls -- the result of thousands of dollars in City
funded renovations -- greeted the “guests,” a term
used by the group. The City also handed out free pairs of socks
and provided City workers.
And this is just a start, volunteers hope.
“We’re interested in providing other services to
the homeless guests beyond just the meal we provide,” Marcussen
said. “This is a way we can actually increase services.”
|Volunteers for Hand-to_Hand
pose outside the OPCC center.
Expanding those services on site will be integral to bringing
home people who have lived outside society sometimes for years,
he and City officials said.
“To get people in the same place at one time is a great
way to get accurate information and let people know what’s
available to them,” said Stacey Rowe, a Human Services Administrator
for the City who has worked tirelessly on homeless issues.
St. Josephs’ Center and OPCC (formerly Ocean Park Community
Center) and a case management team for the City will come to the
free meal programs held Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings,
“They’re not going to be here at the same time, (but)
whenever we have a meal, we’ll try to make sure that we
have at least one or two of them here,” she said.
It is all part of a larger strategy to use the free meal program
as a way to better connect to the city’s most downtrodden
residents in the future, Rowe said.
However on this Saturday, all the players were busy keeping the
first food line moving along, to good results.
All but one man parked their belongings in a back room staffed
by workers and headed to one of two main rooms for the meal. And
one woman was even referred to an emergency bed for the weekend
City officials said they will likely help her find permanent
housing under a local , federally funded program to get those
who have lived on the streets the longest – “the chronically
homeless” – into apartments and support programs.
Despite the success of the program on its first day, kinks still
need to be worked out, volunteers said.
|The City handed out free
socks last Saturday.
Many people ate quickly without talking much and filed back out
into the midday sun, an indication they may feel uncomfortable
in their new surroundings.
“Some of them have been out so long it is just unnatural
for them to come inside,” said volunteer James Reynolds,
“They’re used to being out in the elements. Indoors
is not their element anymore.”
The red-haired boyish-looking Reynolds should know. He too is
a “guest,” and formerly homeless. And now he is struggling
to keep a foothold and a home.
“Originally they helped me out and recently I got fired
from a job and so I find myself in that situation once again for
the next couple of weeks,” he said.
Reynolds said he would be taking full advantage of services while
he searches for a new job, probably as a delivery driver.
“There’s a lot of people out there that need a base
of operations where they can go get cleaned up, shaved up, go
look for an interview,” said Reyonlds, his hair still wet
from a shower that morning.
Still, obstacles may lie ahead.
“We can somewhat control what happens within the boundaries
here, but once they leave you can really no more control them
as we can control you once you leave this room,” Reynolds
|The OPCC center.
Bounded on all sides by restaurants, businesses and soon-to-be
finished luxury apartment buildings, the OPCC facility and its
program is being closely watched. On the first day, many of the
chronically homeless seemed to have stayed away.
“The real people haven’t came over there yet,”
said Stacey, who with Karen Reid lives out of beat up Ford Bronco
for nearly four years now. “In other words, the hard-core
“I think its going to take some time to get it organized,”
he said. “This is like a crash course.”
Reid, homeless after medical bills piled up several years ago,
back when she “had a nice life,” agreed with her partner.
“My only concern is that with homeless people being cooped
up places can lead to things,” she said. “I like it
outdoors, when you’re around homeless people. To me, the
people who are drinking or doing drugs make it hard on people
like us, people who don’t do that.”
Despite the change, Reynolds, Reid and Stacy, along with the
volunteers who showed up to provide security, clean-up, support
and outreach, all agreed the program kicked off to a good start.
“So far everything seems to be working out really well,”
Reynolds said. “Indoors is good. It avoids the rain. It’s
more uniform and not as chaotic.”
Reid too appreciated the help and said you can count on seeing
her and her partner back
“They’re waiting on a bunch of drunks, and we don’t
need to get treated that well, but it was awfully nice of them
to do that,” she said, bashfully stroking her hair as she
“We deserve it, I guess -- we are human beings.”