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Homeless encampments located along Roymar Road right behind Brother Benno's in Oceanside. Photo by Samantha Nelson
Homeless encampments located along Roymar Road right behind Brother Benno's in Oceanside in 2021. File photo.
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Brother Benno’s under scrutiny again following recent complaints

OCEANSIDE – City staff is once again reviewing Brother Benno’s conditional use permit following months of complaints from neighboring businesses regarding the soup kitchen’s homeless clientele.

Brother Benno’s is a non-profit organization that provides a variety of services to homeless individuals, including clothing, mail service, mobile showers and meals. Since first receiving its permit in 1991, the organization has operated out of its current facility at 3620 Production Avenue in the Oceanside Industrial Park.

But over the last few decades, the city has received a growing number of complaints from neighboring businesses regarding some of the homeless individuals using Brother Benno’s services. Most of the complaints recall accounts of people urinating and defecating in front of businesses or on sidewalks, harassing workers and customers and loitering around the park after hours. 

In 2018, the Oceanside Police Department prepared an assessment of the organization’s facility and investigated the alleged violations of Brother Benno’s conditional use permit. Police found that complaints indeed had increased since the organization’s earlier days.

The following year, the city’s Planning Commission appointed three members to the Brother Benno’s Standing Committee, meeting four times between 2019 and 2020 to discuss the organization’s compliance issues and suggest permit revisions to bring relief to neighboring businesses.

The revisions were approved in March 2021 and included enhanced security, modified on-site mail service, and a security and operational management plan. The revisions also included bringing regular updates regarding Brother Benno’s operations to the Planning Commission. 

Although a May 2022 report found complaints had “dramatically decreased” following the implementation of the revisions, the city noticed a rise in complaints in February, ranging from trespassing, loitering, littering, overnight camping, harassment, vandalism, crime, substance abuse, theft, reduced property value and loss of revenue. 

Around the same time, a petition urging the revocation of Brother Benno’s permit began circulating throughout the park.

In response, law enforcement met with Brother Benno’s staff in February to discuss how to improve management of the facility and surrounding area. The organization then implemented reduced food service and hygiene kit times to end at 10:45 a.m. (instead of 4 p.m.) daily and updated security by hiring a second security guard doubling as a sanitation worker to provide on-site security and trash pickup until 7 p.m. each day. 

In his report to the Planning Commission on May 22, Oceanside police Capt. Taurino Valdovinos detailed further recommendations from the police department, including monthly meetings between Brother Benno’s staff, police, city staff and industrial park managers; requiring Brother Benno’s to contract with a third-party security company to provide patrol of the neighborhood and hiring a sanitation worker to be on-site; and requiring Brother Benno’s to have a 24-hour contact phone number for business owners.

Michael Moskowitz, co-president of Brother Benno’s board, told city planning commissioners the organization had already addressed most of the recommendations.

“We are good neighbors, we want our neighbors to be happy with the services we provide,” Moskowitz said. “We recognize that we have a very difficult and challenging community that we are serving, but the impression that if Brother Benno’s was not there that the homeless would just disappear is a misconception.”

Valdovino noted that although many of the changes that the 2021 revised conditional use permit demanded were implemented on paper, like the earlier cutoff of services, those changes weren’t being practiced until over a year later.

Moskowitz stressed the importance of the work that Brother Benno’s performs in the community. In April alone, the organization served over 12,000 meals and provided 1,100 housing vouchers to help people get off the streets.

“If these people did not receive these meals, what would they do? Steal, harass, menace the community, they would not just go away,” Moskowitz said. “We’re not enabling, we’re supporting the homeless community so that they can survive.”

Despite Moskowitz’s plea, many local businesses still feel that Brother Benno’s is no longer compatible with the industrial park and should move somewhere else.

“We believe it’s time to reconsider the compatibility and support a hearing to revoke the CUP,” said Andrea Contreras, a land use attorney who represents three property owners in the industrial park. “Nobody is saying Brother Benno’s should go away, we’re saying its uses are no longer compatible in the park.”

Property manager Barbara Fischer has worked in the park for over two decades. While she has reported many interactions with homeless individuals in the park over the years, her recent encounters have been more aggressive.

“In the past four months, I’ve been yelled at, had rocks thrown at my car, I’ve been chased while I was in my car for asking someone to leave the property,” Fischer said. “I have to honestly say the level of people we’re dealing with now is so different than what we’ve dealt with for 24 years – this group is violent, arrogant, aggressive, confrontational and honestly, not well.”

Resident Diane Nygaard spoke in support of Brother Benno’s, pointing out that Oceanside has the highest number of homeless individuals among the North County cities.

“This is a critical service to our community,” Nygaard said. “This is not Brother Benno’s problem. We need to be looking at safe parking spaces, safe campgrounds and other alternatives that take a great deal of time and money. Providing low cost housing is not something solved overnight, they’re here today, and we need to serve them today.”

Commissioners had mixed thoughts about revoking the conditional use permit and potentially moving Brother Benno’s. Ultimately, the committee agreed that more action is necessary to better enforce the permit requirements and plans to bring back a standing committee to oversee the organization’s operations.

Staff intends to come back by early July with an analysis of Brother Benno’s conditions and potential revisions to the permit for the Planning Commission’s consideration.