San Diego 'A major complaint we get," says Captain Trish Poochigian of the Salvation Army, "is that the homeless cross the street illegally in the middle of traffic. So I told the clients, 'If you want to come to our programs, you need to cross at the crosswalks.' Then they started using crosswalks, but still against the red light. So I said, 'You're not quite getting this; you need to go when the light turns green.' You'd be surprised. I had 6´9´´, 350-pound, rough-and-gruff guys say, 'Yes, ma'am.' And they did what I asked, not because it's me, but on account of what the Salvation Army stands for. One of our sayings is: 'A heart to God and a hand to man.' And the homeless know that we respect them regardless of their background."
But the Centre City Development Corporation may want to change how the Salvation Army does business in San Diego. In early December the corporation told Poochigian that providing food to people violated the Army's conditional-use permit. The corporation did not send a formal demand to end the practice, but on December 14 the Salvation Army voluntarily stopped giving out food.
Poochigian and her husband, Captain Thom Poochigian, lead the Salvation Army's activities on E Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. She understands that the Centre City Development Corporation does not like the homeless people loitering, throwing trash on sidewalks, and violating traffic laws. "But our concern," she says, "is that we be allowed to continue the things that we've been doing downtown for a long time. Our mission is to reach out to people in need, point the way through our belief in Jesus Christ, and meet human suffering in His name without discrimination. We've never given anybody a false impression about what we do."
At issue is whether the Salvation Army's giving people food constitutes a "feeding program." Or is the food an integral part of the Army's religious events? "We call it a fellowship meal," says Poochigian, "and it's after our services. When people come late or when the service is over, we tell them it's not a feeding program. We've been doing meetings with meals afterward in downtown San Diego since 1888." The Salvation Army served its recent evening meals four times a week. They included beef or chicken, starches, and vegetables.
Does linking food to a religious message pressure homeless people to attend religious services? "They can choose to come or not," says Poochigian, "and they don't have to listen when they get there. But I'm a woman of faith and have the right to share that." The services consist of prayers, the singing of Christian hymns, and preaching by Poochigian or her husband.
The conflict with the development corporation only began, according to Poochigian, after the Salvation Army added the meal to its evening program in the early fall. "Already," she says, "we were doing a continental-style breakfast for the senior community. And they knew we were doing it. What we started doing in the evening is the thing that bothered them. If we were violating the conditional-use permit in the evening, then the program that had breakfast in the morning was breaking it as well.
"But we are good neighbors," explains Poochigian. "We're civil-obedient. We temporarily suspended the two programs so we could look into what accusations were coming across. We want to follow civil codes and laws.
"But I've got to believe that sometimes our city gets it wrong, even though they're trying to do the right thing. We believe we're in the right, but until we know for sure, we won't cross that line.
"If they only want to make sure we're within the law as they understand it," Poochigian continues, "then the Salvation Army will get a conditional-use permit to continue what we were doing. But what is their motivation? Do they want to stop us from continuing? That would be a miscarriage of justice."
Centre City Development Corporation project manager Jeff Zinner is pleased that the Salvation Army voluntarily stopped feeding people. "Many varied activities take place downtown," Zinner says, "and to allow them all to coexist, people must comply with their different conditional-use permits." He wants to talk with the Salvation Army about "how and where it can provide its services. Additional changes will be coming in the near future," he says.
Two organizations several blocks east of Petco Park currently serve meals to people in need with the city's full blessing. God's Extended Hand, located at 16th Street and Island Avenue, serves an evening meal Mondays through Saturdays. The St. Vincent de Paul Center on Imperial Avenue offers lunch at 11:30 a.m. every day except Sunday, when it has a brunch at 9:30 a.m.
I ask Poochigian whether the Centre City Development Corporation sees programs like the Salvation Army's as helping to keep homelessness in the downtown area. "Now isn't that silly? There are 6000 homeless in San Diego," she says. "If I were feeding 6000, that idea would come closer to the truth. But I served a population between 150 and 300 for the four nights a week that we were doing it. We gave breakfast to only seniors in risk. I did not create homelessness, and I don't encourage it.
"The development corporation has been mandated by the State of California to find a plan that will eradicate homelessness downtown," says Poochigian. "But you don't eliminate homelessness by getting rid of people or denying them services and food. You get rid of it when you give people some possibility to find hope in their lives and some structure that will stabilize their lives."
The Salvation Army's founder, William Booth, said, "People need soup, soap, and salvation," according to Poochigian. So its programs combine the physical and spiritual with life skills. "We want to connect them to stable things in their lives that will get them out of their circumstances. And we encourage them to be good citizens," she explains.
Is it possible, I ask, that the development corporation thinks its mandate is to move homelessness out of the center city to San Diego's periphery?