Charity defies Roseville, feeds homeless

Annette Devlin hands canned food to Thomas Simpson, center, and Scott Ehlman, right, from the What Would Jesus Do van at Saugstad Park in Roseville. The city has ordered the charity out of the park for its breakfast program.
Annette Devlin hands canned food to Thomas Simpson, center, and Scott Ehlman, right, from the What Would Jesus Do van at Saugstad Park in Roseville. The city has ordered the charity out of the park for its breakfast program. jvillegas@sacbee.com

For the homeless feeding organization called What Would Jesus Do, it is an act of benevolent defiance.

After a 31/2-month absence, the group is again serving breakfast pastries, hot chocolate and coffee, canned goods and additional staples to homeless and other disadvantaged people at Roseville’s Saugstad Park on Sunday mornings. Volunteers were out once more in the chilly air Sunday after resuming the park program on Dec. 21.

For two decades, What Would Jesus Do had been there to greet the brethren of the street with food service three mornings a week. But that was before the city of Roseville ordered the program out of the park. Officials last summer cited complaints over litter, unwanted camping, intimidation of nearby residents and – far worse – the April beating death of a homeless man by four other homeless residents.

But What Would Jesus Do said the problems had nothing to do with its efforts to provide food to those living without shelter. The group also rejected the city’s offer – including $30,000 in site improvements – to move the feeding program from Saugstad Park to a dusty plot in an industrial zone near the Denio’s farmers market and swap meet.

Mike Troy, WWJD director, said the alternative site was unworkable because it was simply too far from where homeless people congregate. So for the second Sunday in a row, the group was giving out food in Saugstad Park – in violation of the city’s order and despite threats of unspecified fines.

“Our attorney advised us we should go back to the park sooner or later,” Troy said. “So we figured that it’s Christmastime. There are a lot of people that need help. So let’s fire this back up. And that’s what we did.”

About 10 people were waiting for the WWJD van as it showed up Sunday morning. They included Jeff Myers, 45, a homeless man who used to work in the fiberglass industry but now “can’t catch a break” and find a job. Myers accepted some free coffee and snacks. And a charity volunteer brought a leftover holiday ham bone for Myers’ dog, Jesse.

“I’ll tell you what: This makes our day,” Myers said. “This is a blessing.”

To the city of Roseville, the feeding program in the park has been a nuisance. Neighbors reported feeling intimidated by homeless people camping in nearby Dry Creek next to Saugstad Park and nearby Royer Park. The Roseville Chamber of Commerce, whose offices back up to Saugstad Park, complained of people sleeping beneath the chamber’s raised building and leaving unkempt scenes of beer bottles and vomit.

City officials thought they had a resolution when WWJD began a Monday-Friday feeding program at Abundant Life Church on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Roseville. But Troy said the church intends to sell that property and that his group will need a permanent site to provide its services.

On Dec. 19, W.H. Whitaker, an attorney for Legal Services of Northern California, informed city officials in a letter that “WWJD currently proposes to resume its breakfast program at Saugstad Park only on Sunday mornings” when Abundant Life Church is not available for feeding.

The city fired back in letters to Troy on Dec. 19 and Whitaker on Dec. 23, telling them that WWJD has no permit to resume its feeding program at the park.

“City staff and I are extremely disappointed in WWJD’s stated intention to purposely violate the law,” Assistant City Manager Rob Jensen wrote Troy.

In a follow-up to Whitaker, Jensen said: “To be clear, the City will not ignore its ordinances. All violations will be enforced.” He added: “As noted in previous correspondence, this activity has proven to be a nuisance and a health and safety issue for the adjacent community.”

The issue over the feeding program in the park flared up last spring after four people were arrested in the beating death of homeless camper Joseph “Joey” Graven on April 24. Graven was set upon as the homeless were gathering about 30 minutes before the 8:30 a.m. breakfast run of the WWJD van.

Myers, who knew Graven and went to his funeral, said his death “had nothing to do with this (feeding) van” and claims the city’s reaction shows that “society doesn’t like the homeless.”

Troy said he has been urging the city to find a suitable alternative location to the park. He suggested the parking lot by the police station. The city rejected that idea but said it will give the issue more study.

Roseville spokeswoman Megan MacPherson said city staff next month will begin looking at alternatives for the feeding program for when WWJD is no longer able to use the Abundant Life facility. Meanwhile, the city still wants the program out of the park.

“We are looking at some options, and staff will be making recommendations to the City Council,” MacPherson said.

Troy said, “The city has told us that it is not its responsibility to take care of the disadvantaged.” He said WWJD will continue serving in the park until there is a promise of a sanctioned new location “to show people that people care about them.”

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee