For a decade, volunteers with Food Not Bombs, a loose-knit group dedicated to ending hunger in America, has prepared and delivered wholesome vegan dinners to Santa Monica's less fortunate during public gatherings on the Third Street Promenade.
Now those Thursday evening meals are coming with a side order of social services in what has been called a more humane and effective method to get people housed.
Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. in collaboration with the Westside chapter of Food Not Bombs, the City of Santa Monica and the Salvation Army brokered a deal to move the Thursday night meals indoors so that those who wish to seek assistance and get off the streets can be connected with case workers as part of the city's efforts to end homelessness.
Volunteers held their first meal at the Salvation Army on Fourth Street On Oct. 4. Around 80 people attended, not including volunteers and staff with DTSM, Inc., the Salvation Army and West Coast Care, a nonprofit contracted by the city to reunite homeless individuals with their families or connect them to rehabilitation facilities, jobs and housing.
Previously volunteers with Food Not Bombs were preparing vegan meals at a nearby church and then carting them over to the 1200 block of the Promenade. Now they can do everything on-site, making the challenging task of preparing healthy meals using donated ingredients a little easier.
"I've given to calling it the weekly miracle. You're never sure on what donations we will receive or the number of volunteers who will show up, but every Thursday night there will be a meal," said Tom Weitzel, a retired television producer who has been helping prepare meals for over three years using tips he picked up while producing cooking shows. "We offer people who are struggling with homelessness meals that provide energy, we provide comfort and we provide a few moments of community."
Convincing the volunteers to move to the Salvation Army was no easy task. Some were reluctant to alter a model that had been successful for many years. Food Not Bombs, while comprised of individual collectives, makes it a point to serve all meals in public places to raise awareness about the plight of the poor who struggle with food insecurity daily. The movement is based on an anti-war platform, calling for the federal government to stop investing in killing abroad and start nurturing communities at home.
"Quite frankly, emotions are a bit mixed, but … in further examination we are continuing the mission of Food Not Bombs and the fact that we are under the auspices of the Salvation Army will keep this issue in the public conversation. That's what we want to do," Weitzel said.
Santa Monica's reputation as a compassionate community that has been addressing the issue of homelessness for decades helped in the decision to partner with the Salvation Army and West Coast Care. In a way, it's a tribute to Santa Monica.
DTSM, Inc. CEO Kathleen Rawson has been working on the issue of providing meals on the Promenade for several years. There have been different groups offering meals throughout the years. Some were not receptive to moving indoors, and there was a challenge to find a proper place to host them.
Rawson reached out to the Salvation Army and its new leadership, as well as Food Not Bombs and the city to come up with a solution. The timing seemed to be perfect for this union.
"We finally saw people being receptive to the idea of offering services to people who, maybe that day, while they are eating a vegan meal, say I want help and then we have people there to provide that help," Rawson said. "The end goal is to get people the services they need, and, ultimately, housing. This moves the needle closer in that direction."
The City Council approved an allocation of $20,000 to the Salvation Army for some renovations to accommodate the dinners. Councilwoman Gleam Davis, who made the initial motion to dedicate funds, along with Mayor Ted Winterer, said the move serves two purposes: it connects people to services and frees up space on the Promenade for everyone to enjoy.
For the Salvation Army, the council funds helped with sorely needed repairs and renovations that have freed up more space for their programs, which include providing meals to kids and seniors, as well as a rapid rehousing program for veterans.
Lt. Chris Wikle, who oversees the local Salvation Army corps. said the first dinner with Food Not Bombs was successful and was pleased by the amount of engagement that took place between those attending and West Coast Care. He feels the new arrangement will lead to better outcomes, but warns that progress may be slow.
"It's a really long and complex road to travel for people experiencing homelessness," he said. "It starts with building trust with someone so they feel safe talking to you and taking your advice."
Trust and relationship building is at the foundation of this new arrangement and thus far it seems to be a good fit for all involved. Weitzel said the next task is to get the word out that the free meals are now being served in a different location. He encourages those interested in the program and the goal of ending homelessness to volunteer.
For more information, contact the Salvation Army at 310.451.1358, and Food Not Bombs at 310.753.7545.