A sign posted near the front door of the Merced County Rescue Mission has sparked concerns that the facility, which provides food and shelter to the needy, would cease to operate.
The notice says the organization will temporarily stop serving meals as of Oct. 1. While officials say the mission will not close, they are sorting out what will happen for meal services after that date.
Bruce Ault, 43, who’s used the rescue mission’s services since 1999, is among those worried about possibly losing its assistance.
“They’ve helped me with everything,” Ault said Thursday. “I’ve seen the strict rules and changes, but I’ve never seen this.”
CEO Bruce Metcalf said the downtown mission is not closing. In fact, it’s looking to expand.
Since last summer, the mission’s board has been working with leaders of Central Presbyterian Church, which is next to the mission on Canal Street and owns the rescue mission building.
Ken Robbins, an elder of the church, said community members have complained about “trash, human waste and safety concerns” arising from the mission.
Metcalf acknowledged the complaints but said problems stem from a small percentage of the rescue mission’s guests.
“Our goal is to try to be good neighbors to the downtown neighborhood,” he said. “It’s been the type of situation where a few bad apples create problems for the rest of us.”
The two boards agreed the rescue mission and its services have grown beyond the capacity of the Canal Street building.
“We asked them to change their services,” Robbins said. “They did it in cooperation with Central Presbyterian Church. They’re trying to make this thing work.”
Mission looking for new campus
The mission serves hot meals to the homeless at breakfast and dinner and provides sack lunches. That program feeds 75 to 120 people a day, Metcalf said. The Canal Street building also serves as a shelter for men; the rescue mission refers women and children to a facility on D Street run by the Merced County Action Agency. The rescue mission has a weekly clothing giveaway and a faith-based program for people trying to transition back into society.
The rescue mission and church made Oct. 1 a target date for the mission to find a new location to expand its services before the church’s youth programs started up.
That was easier said than done.
The rescue mission worked with leaders from the city of Merced and Merced County to find a bigger, permanent location with a kitchen where meals could be served and had room for beds.
“We want a location that’s convenient for people who are homeless, and we want to be good neighbors to whatever community we end up in,” Metcalf said. “Everybody wants us to have a place, but nobody wants us next door. We understand and we’re trying to be sensitive to that and have patience.”
Central Presbyterian offered to help the rescue mission by donating a vehicle, Robbins said. The hope was for it to operate similar to a food truck, but the city didn’t approve, Metcalf said.
The church supports the rescue mission and the homeless, Robbins said. For instance, the church on Friday will host the Merced Homeless Connect event with the Continuum of Care. The event provides resources, services and employment for the homeless.
Mission seeks temporary fix for meals
The lengthy search for a permanent location and lack of options with a mobile food service led to the signs posted on the doors of the rescue mission. In the meantime, Metcalf said, the rescue mission is looking for a temporary place for its meal services. He’s talking with other nonprofits and churches, and hopes to be able to make an announcement soon.
But without a place by Oct. 1, the rescue mission won’t serve meals to guests on Canal Street.
That means something different for each of the people who receive meals from the mission.
Ault said he’d follow the rescue mission wherever it goes.
“It wouldn’t be a problem unless it’s to the point where it’s 27 miles away and in a graveyard,” he said.
That’s not necessarily the case for Brian Nolen, 58. For him, a trip to the Salvation Army is a one-hour hike. Anywhere farther isn’t worth it, he said.
Though he sleeps at the rescue mission each night, Nolen has an income and doesn’t always eat there.
“A hot meal is very good for morale,” he said. “That’s become problematic. Cooking facilities are a problem.”
The rescue mission will continue delivering food to the unincorporated communities and with its other programs, which also provide meals, Metcalf said.
Renee Davenport, an outspoken homeless advocate in Merced, said Central Presbyterian shouldn’t have complained to the rescue mission.
“To me, it’s not a Christian thing to do,” she said. “First they’re thrown out on the street. Now we’re starving them? This is, to me, another way people think to drive the homeless out of Merced.”
“It breaks my heart to see they’re (the rescue mission) being pushed to stop the feeding program,” she said.
Cindy Morse, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said she was surprised to hear the rescue mission would temporarily discontinue serving hot meals. The association had not heard any complaints, she said.
“Their services have been an important bridge for those who struggle to live on the margins,” she said in a prepared statement. “We’re hopeful an alternative can be found, and DNA members will work with other community members to find one.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477
Merced Homeless Connect
Who: Hosted by a private-and-public partnership of Merced City and County Homeless Continuum of Care, Healthy House, American Legion, Central Presbyterian Church
When: Doors open 9:30 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 23
Where: Central Presbyterian Church, 1920 Canal St.
What: Services such as haircuts, eye exams and showers; resources for government, nonprofit and faith-based organizations; employment opportunities; guides to listen and assist homeless attendees; donations used as incentives for attendance