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Churches Say Hepatitis A Outbreak Adds Fuel To Opposition Against Meals For Homeless

People pray before a free meal served at Saint Brigid Parish in Pacific Beach...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: People pray before a free meal served at Saint Brigid Parish in Pacific Beach, January 8, 2018.

Local governments and organizations across the county have long been pressuring churches to stop serving meals to people who are homeless. The recent hepatitis A outbreak has become a new source of fuel for opponents of the meals.

In El Cajon, the City Council voted to ban serving free meals on city property, and activists are planning to protest on Sunday by passing out lunches.

In La Jolla, the town council asked a local church to stop serving meals.

In Pacifc Beach, a group of neighbors organized a petition calling on local churches to stop feeding the homeless.

But some church leaders and churchgoers say this service is part of their religion.

One of them is Tresha Souza, the founder of the organization So Others May Eat. On a warm afternoon just before Christmas, she was frantically unpacking chips, candy, lemonades and baby wipes and stacking them on folding tables in a grassy Mission Bay park. A group of people lined up for the free meal.

"We feed anybody in need, people who are lonely, hungry, homeless, with homes," Souza said.

Her organization had also been serving meals at a church: Mary, Star of the Sea in La Jolla. But just before Thanksgiving, those meals were canceled.

"It's still kind of a mystery to me," Souza said. "I got a phone call because they were talking about hepatitis A, that he didn't want to be the priest that brought hepatitis into La Jolla."

RELATED: San Diego's Hepatitis A Outbreak

The priest, Father Jim Rafferty, disputes the details of the story, but said he did stop the dinners in part because of concerns over hepatitis A. An outbreak of the disease has killed 20 and infected almost 600 people in San Diego County, and has hit the homeless population especially hard.

"I don't want to be accused by the good people of La Jolla of bringing hepatitis A into the area," he said. "If there was just one case, they'd be looking at me, ready to pin the tail on that donkey."

Photo caption: People line up for a free meal in a Mission Bay park, December 19, 2017.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

People line up for a free meal in a Mission Bay park, December 19, 2017.

Rafferty said some La Jollans have resisted feeding the homeless well before the hepatitis A outbreak, and that the disease is just a new excuse to call for the meals to stop.

Ann Kerr Bache, the president of the La Jolla Town Council, confirmed that the council asked the church to stop the meals.

"The meals were attracting people to La Jolla and we are concerned about hygiene," she said.

At another Catholic church in Pacific Beach, things have gone differently.

On a grey Monday evening in January, people got meatloaf, salad and bread at Saint Brigid Parish.

Deacon Chris Hulburt said some neighbors have long opposed their meal service. Last year, a petition called on them and other nearby churches to stop, and he thinks someone reported the church to the county health department.

"The county came to us," he said. "We think somebody called the county and provoked the inspection, but I don't know that for sure."

County inspectors came, requested some changes, and then gave the church an "A" food inspection grade, just like the grades given to restaurants.

Hulburt said helping others is part of the church's beliefs.

Photo caption: A volunteer helps prepare dinner at Saint Brigid Parish in Pacific Beach, Jan...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

A volunteer helps prepare dinner at Saint Brigid Parish in Pacific Beach, January 8, 2018.

"We're going to continue to serve people in need who come to our facility," he said. "If they're hungry, we're going to feed them, if they need clothes, we're going to clothe them, if they need prayer, we're going to pray with them. We're going to do what a church does."

Ann Kerr Bache, the La Jolla Town Council's president, said she understands that these meals are part of religion for some. But, she said meals are not the best way to help those in need.

"People come and it makes them feel good because they provide some truth to people and then leave," she said. "But they haven't done anything except be able to tell their neighbors they went down and quote 'helped the homeless.'"

Hulburt says not everyone who comes to Saint Brigid's meals is homeless, and that the meals are about more than food.

"They're about encountering people where they are and engaging with them as human beings," he said.

Local governments and organizations across the county have long been pressuring churches to stop serving meals to people who are homeless, but some church leaders and churchgoers say this service is part of their religion.

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