Roseville/Placer News

Roseville moves homeless charity after beating death

Shane Brand, a homeless veteran, knew the late Joseph “Joey” Graven as Googly Eyes. It was a nickname bestowed for Graven’s gentle spirit and good humor, even as he anxiously kept a knife close for protection.

Graven was a regular at Roseville’s Saugstad Park, where the brethren of the street gather three mornings a week. There, just beyond the baseball diamonds, dog run and picnic and play areas, volunteers for a faith-based charity, What Would Jesus Do?, park a van on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sunday mornings. They give out doughnuts, breakfast pastries, hot chocolate, ramen noodles, fruit, canned goods and other staples.

In April, police say Graven, 35, was beaten to death by four other homeless people said to be waiting for the food van. And it’s no coincidence that the city now wants the homeless – and What Would Jesus Do? – out of the park.

Officials are offering to allow the charity to operate on a city-owned lot nearly 2 miles away, tucked behind the Union Pacific railyard and a few blocks from the vast grounds of the Denio’s Market and Swap Meet. In a letter to What Would Jesus Do? Inc., the city of Roseville said the program is simply no longer welcome at its current site.

The city’s Aug. 11 letter cited mounting community complaints about “litter in the neighborhood, increased camping, intimidation of residents and an overall negative effect on usability and safety” of Saugstad Park, nearby Royer Park and adjacent neighborhoods. Both parks stretch alongside Dry Creek, long a lure for homeless campers.

“We’ve gotten complaints about that location for a long time,” said Roseville public affairs director Megan MacPherson. “They became intensified with the homicide.”

WWJD has served the homeless at Saugstad Park for two decades, albeit without a city permit. It proposed moving its feeding van to several other locations in the city, including the parking lot of the Police Department.

The city found none of those proposals workable. But to entice the group out of the park, Roseville officials offered to spend $30,000 in city funds for paving and other site improvements at the proposed north Roseville feeding location. The dusty roadside spot at Denio Loop and Atkinson Street is bordered by a small oak tree-studded marsh and shadowed by the Foothills Boulevard overpass.

Homeless people say the alternative site for the food distribution is just too far away from Saugstad Park and where people in need congregate. WWJD says the city’s suggested location is unacceptable – and that neither the homeless nor their charitable providers will move there.

“We’re going to reject the city’s offer,” Mike Troy, director of WWJD, said this week. “The reality is that it is not in the right location, it’s dangerous and it’s not going to work. We’ve given them multiple other locations and suggestions and they’ve shot us down on all of them. They’re trying to push us out of town.”

The homeless people at Saugstad Park complain that the city is punishing them – and penalizing a noble charitable feeding program – because of actions of four people that some said preyed on a fellow homeless man in a purported feud over a stolen bike and a debt of as little as $10.

The way Brand tells it, the dispute started when bullies lurking in the street population stole Joey Graven’s bike over the debt – only to have him steal it back, fueling a confrontation that percolated for days. He said the rift had “nothing, absolutely nothing” to do with the WWJD homeless food program.

To Brand, 26, who battles substance abuse and camps by the park in nearby Dry Creek, Graven was a marvel. Graven was upbeat despite his misery of drug and alcohol problems and grief over the death of his mother. He could disassemble a bicycle and put together a new one from parts of “12 different bikes.” He once made a homeless woman a bracelet out of the ovals of spoons.

“It looked like it was from Tiffany,” Brand said. “I’m not kidding.”

On April 24, Michael Gravel, 55, a homeless man with hands and knees disabled from three decades in the flooring business, said he saw a crowd set upon Joey Graven in the park as he appeared to be “snoozing” against a tree.

Police say Graven got into a fight with one man and stabbed him, causing a minor wound, then was fatally pummeled by that man and three others. At the time, the homeless were gathering 30 minutes before the 8:30 a.m. breakfast run of the What Would Jesus Do? van.

Gravel said Joey Graven used to volunteer in the kitchen of St. Vincent de Paul, a charity group that offers hot meals and other services to homeless and needy residents in downtown Roseville. He said Graven would stand up for people who got harassed or picked on at the park but “wasn’t an instigator” of violence.

Roseville police spokeswoman Dee Dee Gunther said four suspects in Graven’s death remain in Placer County jail on murder charges. They include Charles David Waldecker, 24, of Roseville, who police say got a minor stab wound in his back in the initial confrontation. Police said the other three suspects – Matthew Russell Alfonso, 29, and Joseph Alan Ray Smith, 30, both of Roseville, and Ninah Tyneil Winnie, 36, of Atwater – then joined Waldecker in beating Graven into unconsciousness.

Police say the killing was the worst of 94 incidents recorded at the park since 2010 during the hours when the food is offered. Sixty-two of the incidents involved minor violations of park rules. There were three arrests for weapons, one for assault, three for drugs or alcohol, eleven for trespassing, two for obstructing officers, one for theft, one for a felony warrant and nine for misdemeanor warrants.

At the Roseville Chamber of Commerce, which backs up to the park on the other side of Dry Creek, Wendy Gerig said she has seen and experienced enough.

The chamber president said she has had to add fencing and locked gates beneath her building because too many homeless people would crawl under the raised building and sleep there in nights before What Would Jesus Do? distributions. She also complained of finding people slumbering on her deck and, worse, unkempt scenes of beer bottles and vomit.

Gerig says she wants the population out of the park and away from her offices because she fears for her employees’ safety.

Nearby resident Tom Mathews said the situation has become intolerable for neighbors. Mathews, a marriage and family therapist, lives near Royer Park, which is across Douglas Boulevard from Saugstad Park and also frequently inhabited by the homeless.

“There is ongoing concern with safety issues and the element that WWJD brings into our neighborhood,” Mathews said. He added: “If we don’t look at the safety issues, we’re not going to have a park that is utilized by families and kids.”

Chanel Simpson, 43, a homeless woman currently sober after a long battle with drug addiction, said many neighbors are supportive of the homeless. Some residents allow Simpson and her handyman husband to camp into their backyard while they look to get back into housing.

“The neighbors do have rights to complain. I can understand their concerns. Hey, people leave trash on their property and just don’t care,” Simpson said.

Once a major railroad town, Roseville has long had a legacy of homelessness – colored by images of hobos jumping trains chugging into and out of its railyards.

The city has developed into one of the most upscale suburbs in the Sacramento region. But its homeless challenges remain – with an estimated 600 homeless residents in Placer County and only 60 shelter beds.

“We have 540 people sleeping (outside) at night in the second richest county in California,” said Suzi deFosset, executive director of The Gathering Inn, a local homeless assistance program. The group works with 60 Placer County churches to provide a rotating shelter system. It also offers services including life skills classes, résumé and job search programs, drug and alcohol counseling, and rental assistance.

DeFosset said WWJD is being blamed for luring in a homeless population “that is already here.” Despite the homicide, she said, “These people are not a scary population. But these are people with very little room in their life for bad luck and bad choices.”

McPherson said Roseville officials told What Would Jesus Do? that the group could serve the homeless at Saugstad Park until Oct. 11 if the group accepted the city’s offer to move to the lot at Denio Loop and Atkinson Street. Otherwise, the city said, the group must be out of the park by Sunday or face citations and potentially escalating fines.

“Our staff has really bent over backwards to find a way to have them operating continuously,” McPherson said.

Troy, a medical equipment salesman who volunteers as the group’s director, said WWJD will permanently pull its food van out of Saugstad Park after Sunday’s breakfast. He said the group will distribute food on Mondays through Fridays outside the Abundant Life Church in downtown Roseville, where it has recently served the homeless on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays.

But that site isn’t a solution, either. Roseville officials previously notified the group that the church site isn’t zoned for a homeless feeding program and that the food distribution will have to end there as well.

Troy said What Would Jesus Do? is wrongly bearing the burden of Joey Graven’s murder.

“If there is an incident at a shopping mall,” he said, “you don’t shut down the mall.”