Malibu, Methodists and the homeless: There is a religion story in here somewhere

With homelessness being a major discussion topic on the West Coast these days, it’s only fitting that the Los Angeles Times team found this quirky story about what happens when Christians act, well, too Christian. I would argue that there could be a religion angle to this debate.

In a story titled “Malibu church pressured to end homeless dinners, some saying it lures needy to upscale city,” you have everything turned around. Here we’ve got a church doing the right thing while the rich are telling believers to knock it off.

Los Angeles, by the way, has the nation’s second largest concentration of homeless, so it was only a matter of time before their presence infiltrated the dwellings of the very rich living north of town.

Being homeless in Malibu is different...
Residents have long been generous to those who live in the city's 21 miles of canyons, beaches and glittering shopping centers.
For 17 years, religious groups fed homeless people, and the city and private donors put up hundreds of thousands of dollars for social workers to find them housing and services.
But Malibu United Methodist Church -- facing pressure from the city -- in recent weeks took a U-turn, deciding twice-weekly dinners for homeless people would stop after Thanksgiving. The cutoff came after city officials summoned organizers and suggested they were attracting more homeless people and making the problem worse.

What follows is a description of how the Methodists and another Christian ministry, Standing on Stone, have been co-hosting dinners for the homeless at the church twice weekly for three years. Another social service agency helped two dozen of them get off the streets and into decent housing. But then:

After the Metro's Expo Line opened to Santa Monica last year, neighbors began complaining of mentally ill and rough-looking characters camping at the beach and hanging out near schools.
"A homeless person was taking a shower in the girls locker room in middle school -- that wasn't real good," said Gary Peterson, a retired developer and hotelier who quit the church's board of trustees over the meal issue. "Providing dinner is a nice thing to do and a good thing, but it's the location."

The story is unclear as to whether Peterson was for feeding the homeless or against it. Mentions of the church don’t say much about the congregation’s response or why it started the ministry in the first place. Clearly there are other churches in the area. Were the Methodists acting alone? In other words, is there a religion story in here somewhere?

An earlier article on the situation by the Christian Post tells us that while the number of homeless veterans has stayed constant, the numbers of mentally ill on local streets went up by 2,000 between 2013-2015 alone. I’m guessing it’s their presence that is spooking the Malibu-ites. Question: Were there any changes in state laws that changed the legal rights of the mentally ill?

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A CBS story on the topic was far more centered on the church and the members’ assertions that they can’t stand by and ignore the problem. The Times did quote the pastor.

(Sandy) Liddell (the Methodist pastor) pledged to find a new place for the feedings, but that could be tough. Standing on Stone has been forced to move three other times because of complaints, (Shifra) Wylder said.
"There's no place in Malibu to go," she said.

The Orange County Register did a story earlier this month on the Malibu homeless that was rich in sarcasm. A sample:

It might be the nation’s best homeless meal.
The starter course on this night is centered around a selection of pizza slices, artisan bread and charcuterie. The entree is a choice of homemade stew, beef or chicken, along with Persian rice, roasted organic vegetables, green salad and cornbread, accompanied by a subtle, home-spiced pasta soup. Dessert is cherry pie.
It’s all served at sunset in an elegant patio, accompanied by light strands draped tastefully between trees and the salty whiff of the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Being homeless in Malibu has its perks.

This story offered a factoid that other stories have not: That it was the Malibu police that asked the church to stop serving up meals –- but only for a five-month period -– to see if ending the meal has any effect on local crime stats.

I’ve written previously in GetReligion about homelessness on the West Coast here, here, here and here because it is the biggest moral question facing this part of the country. In some places, religious institutions are trying to help out. Sometimes they get credit for doing so; other times they don’t. Rarely do they get told to stop doing good. 

But there's always a first time. Five months puts us at about Easter (April 1, 2018), so I'm betting the church will want to start serving food by then.

Will anyone be covering the story at that time? Stay tuned.

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