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City at Loggerheads with Meals Program at Reed Park

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By Jorge Casuso

August 19, 2019 -- A showdown has been brewing between Santa Monica City officials and the organizer of a meals program that has been serving food to more than 100 homeless people every Sunday at Reed Park.

The group -- Family Food.US -- emerged after the Westside Vineyard Church last summer was pressured by neighboring residents to move its meals program indoors ("Westside Church to Stop Sunday Lunches for Homeless at Reed Park," May 2, 2018).

The new group's founder, Santa Monica resident Steve Petramale, said he started the program after his 11-year-old son was taken aback by hungry homeless people during a visit to the park near their home last May.

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After serving ten meals on their first day at Reed Park last summer, the numbers grew in just four months to some 100 people served, Petramale said.

"I didn't set a goal of feeding all these people but it ended up happening," he said. "My thing is not really about the homeless, it's about hunger.

"We have families that pull up in cars and the elderly who live in the area," said Petramale, who acknowledges the majority of those the program serves are homeless.

City officials say they support Petramale's aims but that the meals program at Reed Park violates State, County and City regulations.

"While the City is supportive of Family Food’s altruistic efforts to feed the homeless, compliance with laws and regulations focused on protecting public health and safety is critical for everyone," said Constance Farrell, the City's spokesperson.

"These are not technicalities," City Manager Rick Cole wrote in a letter to Petramale dated August 7. "We have discussed with you a range of options to facilitate your desire to continue your efforts.

"Despite tremendous public concern from neighbors about continuing unlawful operations, we've gone the extra mile to find an alternative and avoid taking punitive action."

The City has identified two alternative locations where Family Food.US can distribute the meals indoors with support from the City -- the Salvation Army and Step Up On Second, Farrell said.

"Mr. Petramale has not expressed interest in either option," she said.

Petramale says he visited the Salvation Army -- where "I knew everybody in the place" from the meals program he runs -- and was told by the director that the agency cannot accommodate the program.

He said he also visited Step Up on Second, a non-profit that provides programs and services for the homeless, but was told by City officials it would cost $1,000 to use the facility's kitchen.

"I might as well bring them to McDonald's and buy them food and save all the trouble," said Petramale, who cooks all the meals at home with his wife and son.

In his letter, Cole said the City continues "to extend a hand to collaborate."

"We hope that you will reconsider the options presented before you and work out an amenable solution with one of the local homelessness service providers or faith-based organization," Cole wrote.

The August 7 letter ends with a warning.

"Please be advised that if you continue operations past August 12, the Santa Monica Police Department will issue you a citation for multiple misdemeanor violations of the Los Angeles County Code."

City officials said in a statement that they are coordinating with County Health "regarding their pending enforcement action."

"So to date no citations have been issued by the City for the continued operation of Family Food’s Sunday meal at Reed Park," officials said.

Petramale says he has looked into the health and city regulations and believes he is not in violation.

Asked what his next move would be if they try to shut him down, Petramale, who is a boxing trainer, said:

"I'm a fighter. It's like asking what I'm going to hit them with if they throw a punch."

After giving it more thought he softened his stance.

"I'm willing to relocate and work with them if they find a place," he said. "I don't want the neighbors hating me and wanting to kill me.

"I sort of got obligated," Petramale said. "I didn't plan on having a lot of people."

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