Oldtown Showdown As a church in Oldtown Salinas works its mission to serve the poor and homeless, a business association takes legal aim at stopping them.

By Mary Duan
Photographs by Carlos Castro

A warm and sunny November morning, and the Clinica de Salud mobile clinic is getting ready to  leave the First United Methodist Church in Oldtown Salinas, wrapping up its weekly delivery of healthcare services to the poor and homeless. A volunteer folds up a table and chair to move them back inside the church offices, and offers a wide toothless grin and directions to a stranger looking for the pastor.

Across the street, a man sprawls on his stomach across the sidewalk, jeans hanging halfway down his hips and exposing his Army-green underwear. At first I’m not sure if he’s injured or even dead, but as I walk down the block, he readjusts, grabs a ballcap off the ground next to him and props himself up using a concrete parking barrier as a pillow.

Two scenes of Oldtown: One in which a clinic with a mission for serving the poor brings healthcare to a church known for its mission of serving the poor. Another in which a poor person with clearly serious problems doesn’t have the wherewithal to make it across the street, either to the church or to the Steinbeck library, where as long as he behaved himself he could camp out in relative safety and comfort all day.

Both are scenes the Salinas City Center Improvement Association—a 501(c)3 public benefit corporation formed in 2016 and funded by property tax assessments on Oldtown property owners—would prefer didn’t exist. Or rather: They don’t want it to exist downtown, which thanks to some key developments (the Taylor Building, the purchase and reuse of the Steinbeck Center by CSU Monterey Bay, among them) is slowly crawling its way toward being a lively, thriving place for people to do business during the day, and mingle and mix and be at night.

And the association may be gearing up to sue the city of Salinas to make sure that in the future, they don’t exist. Based on the letters already flying back and forth between lawyers, it’s likely to be one ugly fight.

The animus between the association and the church—or, more accurately, the animus the association has for the church’s activities—goes back years, to 2008, when the Methodists set out on their mission of feeding the poor and providing people services. Every week, those services include the mobile health clinic, mental health counseling from Interim Inc., services to homeless veterans, HIV and hepatitis testing, a clothing closet stocked with used clothing, hygiene supplies, Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, sober-living services and a “safe place” day room with television, computers and Internet access.

In 2013, the Oldtown Salinas Association (the group’s previous iteration), dispatched a letter to the city stating the OSA’s mission of safeguarding Oldtown as a “clean, safe, peaceful and ambient [sic] place to visit, work and do business” is being hampered by the church.

Back then, association director Ken Steen, who still serves as the new agency’s director as well, wrote to the city that First United Methodist fostered “an undesirable element of street thug roaming the streets of Oldtown” and that element “engage(s) in antisocial and illegal activities to include aggressive solicitation, harassment, urination, defecation, intoxication and drug use.”

Specifically, he wrote, the church fosters that element with programs that are in violation of its nonconforming use under the city zoning code.

“The Association…hereby demands that immediate code enforcement action be taken against the church. Action must require the church to cease and desist performance of any and all activities in violation of zoning code.”

Comments attached to that letter came from a who’s who of Oldtown business owners, and some included calls for wholesale civil rights violations, including citizens arrests for homeless panhandling and loitering around Oldtown. At one point, one business owner had suggested during a meeting that homeless be forced to wear armbands signifying their status as homeless, a cringe-worthy hearkening to Germany in the 1930s.

But the written comments also outlined a grim reality: pools of urine and piles of human feces found many morning in doorways; used hypodermic needles left on the ground; aggressive panhandling and threats of physical harm to employees of various businesses. There were also complaints that unless it was a life-threatening emergency during which someone was at risk of imminent harm, the Salinas Police wouldn’t show up if called.

“I don’t know the answer to this,” wrote Jim Gattis, who at that time owned five buildings in Oldtown. “I’ve installed cameras and surveillance warning signs which have proved ineffective. I’m currently having my maintenance man remove any possessions stored on my property on a regular basis hoping that it will discourage future use…hopefully if we work together we can find a solution.”

The city declined to enact code enforcement against the church and shut down their programming. There’s a Constitutional argument to be made that the state can’t get involved in legitimate church affairs. And there’s precedent in play: First United Methodist has been in Oldtown before use permits were required, and so their use of church facilities for legitimate church purposes is grandfathered in. And whether you like the use or not, serving the homeless is at the heart of their mission. There’s nothing nonconforming about it.

Forward to 2017, a few years after downtown’s largest business organization first called for the city to shut the church’s homeless outreach down, the city instead did something bold.

In May, the city announced it would grant the church $500,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development so the church could modernize and expand its decrepit kitchen, where volunteers work in substandard conditions to feed the poor and homeless seven days a week.

And that’s when the lawyers got involved.

It’s the same November morning, when the smiling, toothless volunteer tells me where to find the pastor, that I first meet Steve Lundin in person. He’s a burly guy with a full head of snowy hair, an affable man on a mission—that mission is to carry out the will of the congregation at First United Methodist Church. And that will leans heavily toward “the least of my brothers” portion of the Bible.

“I’ve been in ministry for over 30 years and I tend toward social activism and organizing, but I’ve never served a church like this that puts it out every single day. This church puts its values to work every day,” Lundin says.

Shoes for those who need them.

He takes me on a tour of the facilities—an art therapy room, the clothing closet (a full-sized room, really) with shelves and racks of used clothing, shoes and underwear. There’s a room for AA and NA meetings and then there’s the kitchen, which is too small to fit more than a few volunteers at a time and has walls that are wavy with water damage and floors that are peeling at the edges and buckling in the center.

The grant, if it comes through, won’t allow for a great deal of expansion, but it will allow for some—a wall will move a few feet and take over some space currently used for meetings. The grant will also ensure the church can modernize and repair the kitchen, and continue serving the meals that it does. The facility opens at 6 a.m. with a continental breakfast in the morning, and a hot lunch cooked and served by volunteers at 11:30 every day.

By 2 p.m., the kitchen is cleaned and the facility ends its services for the poor and homeless for the day. A few volunteers remain on site for a while to provide security and answer questions, but those who receive the services are expected to vacate the premises and move on for the rest of the day and night.

Right now, the CDBG is in process—the city is conducting a federal environmental review of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The only comment the city has received during the review process thus far is from City Center Association attorney Pamela Silkwood of the law firm Horan Lloyd, discussing the negative impacts the project would have on Oldtown in general, and the church and its immediate neighborhood in particular. She sent the letter in September, addressed to Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter and the Salinas City Council.

The lengthy comment letter again points to the church lacking a conditional use permit, and argues that CDBG funds can’t be used to benefit the Methodist Church facility when the same facility is used by the congregation for religious services. It also, oddly and erroneously, discusses the church facility being used to dispense drugs, something that church program director Rev. Cindy Storrs says flat out doesn’t happen, unless Band-Aids and highly desirable tubes of Chapstick can be considered drugs.

The comment also includes a treatise citing a Yale University study that correlates homelessness to the jail and prison population.

“Given the project’s proximity to (the) John Steinbeck Library, YMCA, Salinas Recreation Center, Roosevelt Elementary School and Salinas High School, there is a valid concern that children and others would be increasingly exposed to and at risk of harassment, loitering and criminal and drug activities,” Silkwood writes. She argues that in addition to the NEPA process, the city must require California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, review, and require the church to obtain a conditional use permit—which she says the church couldn’t obtain because of its nonconforming use.

In minutes from its July meeting, the City Center Association indicates it was moving forward with hiring an attorney specifically to address the city’s handling of the church and the HUD grant. It references discussion of “the merits of an action” against the city because of the church’s activities. What that action might be isn’t outlined, but City Attorney Chris Callihan says it can only mean they’re gearing up to sue—or at least talking about gearing up to sue.

Sign of the times in Oldtown.

I ask Lundin what his understanding was of what the association was trying to accomplish. He laughed, somewhat ruefully, and said he wasn’t exactly sure.

“They’d like for us not to do what we do,” Lundin says. “I’ve heard from several of them that, ‘Pastor, we like what you do, we’d just like you to do it somewhere else.’

“I think the fear is that us getting the grant, they associate with us increasing our volume of services. I have said, at a city council and at an association meeting, this is not going to increase the volume of meals and people are not going to come because all of a sudden the Methodist Church has a nicer kitchen,” Lundin says. “The kitchen isn’t part of a plan to increase levels of service. It’s just that we’ve worn the place out. We want a nicer place for volunteers to work and we need more elbow room.”

Lundin introduces me to Storrs, an ordained Methodist minister and the program manager for the church’s Neighborhood Services Center. She rides herd on the volunteers who help the programs run, and holds a daily team meeting with them to look at the church’s core values and what they mean for the programming.

“That sets the tone for how we look at our 125 guests that come here. How can we serve them better and what are their needs and what does recovery mean and how can we live in a world where there’s not enough blankets and sleeping bags and nooks and crannies and apartments and homes,” she says. “Someone who’s just gotten out of the hospital has different needs than someone who’s gone off and gotten drunk and needs a place to sober up.”

Storrs says she’s a self-described “royal pain in the ass” when it comes to following the rules. If a service recipient isn’t behaving, she’s the one who tells them they need to leave and can come back and try again the next day.

“If they’re drunk and disorderly, they’re not welcome here,” she says. “We’re not causing anyone to be a problem, we’re helping people not to be problems.”

As Lundin later tells me, “We’re going to go on doing what we do.”

What they’ve done includes contacting attorneys with the Pacific Justice Center, which works on church-state issues and has offered the church a free consultation. Getting an attorney is a smart move. In Malibu, for example, the Malibu Methodist Church just bowed to city pressure and stopped serving twice-weekly dinners to the homeless. The move came after city officials approached the church and said their ministry was making the homeless situation in town worse.

Other than consulting an attorney, Lundin says, “We’re in a holding pattern.”

Silkwood, the land use attorney, didn’t return a call asking to talk about the lengthy comment on the HUD process, or about a letter the association received from Callihan, the city attorney, requesting documentation proving the association had followed the Brown Act when it decided to hire an attorney. Callihan, meanwhile, is preparing a letter responding to the association’s initial comment, and believes he will finish it the week of Nov. 27.

But Catherine Kobrinsky-Evans, an Oldtown property owner and volunteer head of the Salinas City Center Improvement Association board, agrees to sit down with me and discuss the association’s perspective—and her own—on how the city has handled the issue of homelessness.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, she says, and it starts with the county and moves on to the city. Salinas, she says, is flouting its own official Downtown Vibrancy Plan, which states downtown should not be a provider of homeless services.

“That’s in their own language,” she says.

But in addition to the grant to the church, the city and county are also opening a temporary winter warming shelter in portable units formerly occupied by the Public Defender’s Office.

A half-million dollars is a serious amount of money, an amount that would fund a serious number of shelter beds and transitional housing. People don’t seem to realize that bringing homeless services to downtown results in a great deal of fallout to businesses, Kobrinsky-Evans says.

“It’s created a nexus of activities. Those people bring drug dealers and all kinds of people and their problems here, and you’re seeing a growing lawlessness,” she says. “We noticed the change in 2008 when they started their services, and local property owners started saying, ‘Wait a minute, what’s happening here?’

“There’s no enforcement here. This (the grant) is not a solution. Throwing a half million dollars that doesn’t include transitional services is not going to help,” Kobrinsky-Evans says. “Getting people off the street and into transitional housing and getting them the services they need is what the Salinas City Center Improvement Association would support.”

But in terms of further legal action, and despite the language in the minutes that indicate it’s being contemplated, Kobrinsky-Evans tells me it hasn’t even been discussed.

“It’s a possibility,” she says. “We’re frankly hoping the city fulfills its obligations. We have 219 separate properties in the district and we represent all those properties. We feel that obligation keenly and we’re trying to do what’s right. It’s amazing to just have the city roll over you.”

The days before Thanksgiving are a busy time in Oldtown, as businesses get ready for the days after the holiday. There’s Black Friday, of course, the so-called busiest shopping day of the year, which draws shoppers to Oldtown’s boutiques and galleries. There’s Small Business Saturday, which Oldtown fixture and gallery owner Trish Sullivan drags to life every year, trying to draw even more shoppers to the district’s locally owned shops. There’s the initial rush of family-friendly holiday movies, which creates lines of happy filmgoers at the Maya Cinemas. And Sunday comes the Holiday Parade of Lights, when people traditionally rope off streetside seating hours before the evening parade starts and create a draw for local restaurants as they camp out, socialize, eat and wait for the event to start.

But on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, as the Methodists were gearing up to serve a few hundred people a holiday-centric lunch, and as everyone else was getting ready to feast with families and friends, I was driving through Oldtown and came across a weird but very telling scene: Lundin, crouched by the bushes of the city-owned garage a block away from the church on Salinas Street, picking trash off the ground and out of the shrubs.

Meanwhile, the cleaning crew contracted by the Salinas City Center Improvement Association to keep the streets of Oldtown looking spiffy apparently took a four-day holiday. Shoppers and families who flocked downtown over the long holiday weekend were greeted by broken bottles, empty food containers and trash strewn all over the place.

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Mary Duan

About Mary Duan

Mary Duan is a Salinas-based journalist and a co-founder of Voices of Monterey Bay. She likes (in no particular order) puppies, the beach and the California Public Records Act.