June 21 2016 04:31 PM

Dream Center coerced off San Diego streets in favor of MLB

Pastor James Merino
Photo by Ron Donoho

The executive director of a San Diego faith-based nonprofit said he was threatened by the San Diego Police Department that "the hammer would be brought down" on him if he didn't stop doing street feedings for the homeless in July, when the Major League Baseball All-Star Game is coming to downtown.

Pastor James Merino heads the San Diego Dream Center. His volunteer-driven organization is based in Chula Vista and also feeds homeless individuals at least eight times a month on the streets of East Village, blocks from Petco Park.

After a series of cordial emails and meetings with staff of the Downtown San Diego Partnership and its affiliate Clean & Safe organization, Merino said he was invited to a February 12 meeting that unexpectedly included SDPD officers, including Captain Chuck Kaye. Merino said Kaye became agitated when he declined to end a twice-weekly food-share program.

"They asked, 'What can we do to help you stop doing this?'" Merino said. "I said it's a very important part of our belief to feed the poor, that's part of our core values as Christians. We said we don't think weíll ever be able to stop doing it, because that's what we were called to do."

The meeting became tense, Merino said. "Everybody at the table was telling us to stop," he said. "Officer Kaye then said that other groups had stopped [doing feedings], and we were going to stop, too. He said, 'We're going to go ahead and bring the full extent of the law on your organization. We'll shut you down.'"

Merino said Kaye then asked: "Are you planning on going out in July?...July is the All-Star Game...If you come out in July we will bring the hammer down on your organization."

Merino perceived that statement as a threat. He said Kaye added: "You can go ahead and file your complaint right now." Merino felt it was implied that any complaint made to the city would fall on deaf ears.

Merino's wife, Claudia, who acts as co-executive director of the Dream Center, also was at the meeting. "Yes, they wanted us to stop altogether, and they very specifically said we better not be out on the street in July because of the All-Star Game," she said.

Claudia Merino said the meeting left her with a stomach ache for the rest of the day, and added that it upset her to hear police officers talk about ticketing the homeless so they would leave the area. "The homeless are human beings," she said. "But they talked about them like they were rodents or roaches that shouldn't be visible to the people who live downtown."

That meeting on February 12 was led by Bahija Hamraz, executive director of Clean & Safe, and attended by others who also tried to convince him to stop the food-share program, James Merino said.

CityBeat reached out to all parties reportedly in that meeting.

Christina Chadwick, a spokesperson for the Downtown Partnership (which has oversight of Clean & Safe) said: "Pastor Merino was invited to the meeting as part of the Partnership's ongoing effort to connect service providers with volunteers eager to serve downtown's homeless community."

Chadwick did not address Merino's allegations but denied that Downtown Partnership is working with the mayor and SDPD to clear downtown of the homeless for the All-Star Game.

A response from the SDPD's Sergeant Lisa McKean, of the media services unit, was broad. "The San Diego Police Department is working closely with many stakeholders involved in the preparations for the 2016 MLB All Star Game. As with any major event, whether it be Comic-Con or a Rolling Stones concert, our mission is to provide a safe environment for San Diegans and the many guests who will be here to enjoy San Diego and take part in the event."

McKean did not provide specifics on SDPD efforts to provide a safe environment.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer's office denied there is an effort underway to purge downtown so that homeless people are not visible when cameras from around the world are in town to broadcast the All-Star Game and its associated festivities.

"There was no such directive from the Mayor's Office regarding the All-Star Game," said spokesperson Craig Gustafson. "Our understanding is that the meeting you're referring to was to encourage providers to move away from homeless feedings and use their resources to support the Housing-First model."

And yet, the recent visible examples of the mayor's and the city's efforts to support a "Housing-First model" are increased sweeps of homeless encampments and the installation of rocks under a downtown overpass to discourage sleeping in that area.

Merino said the San Diego Dream Center ministry includes 300 volunteers, and is part of the Downtown Fellowship of Churches. The Dream Center adds outreach to its street feedings, which it has done for years, he said. Merino said the food they give out—hot dogs, chicken, burritos, etc.—is "God's goodness" that attracts homeless and gains their trust so trained volunteers can offer resources that can help get them off the streets. Merino said in two-and-a-half hours he can feed 250-300 homeless individuals, and that every feeding results in "one to five people" accepting help and connecting to resources. He said they have food handler permits, always clean up the area after they're done and make sure feedings don't interfere with residents or businesses.

As for sharing food on the street this July, Merino said the Dream Center will stand down—reluctantly—until after the All-Star Game.

"Our volunteers come out to give love, grace, mercy and a helping hand," he said. "Not to get cited or arrested. I might endure that—but that's not what I want for our volunteers. Weíll give [the city] July."

Merino said he fears retribution on his ministry for speaking to the press, but felt a calling to go public. He is looking into filing a lawsuit, and has connected with lawyer Scott Dreher. In 2011, Dreher represented David "Waterman" Ross and won a suit against the city that claimed a police officer used unreasonable force in detaining Ross from handing out water bottles to the homeless.

"We don't know of any legal basis they have to stop [Dream Center] from doing this," said Dreher. "There is an ordinance in the city's Municipal Code [54.0122] but the city has admitted it is too vague to enforce. If you believe James then this is galling. You're not allowed to scare somebody into giving up a Constitutional right."

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