OCEANSIDE — Brother Benno’s, a nonprofit organization that provides food and a slew of other services to homeless and low-income people, is under scrutiny by many city residents and business owners who believe the organization is enabling those it serves rather than helping them. Supporters of the organization argue that without Brother Benno’s, the city and the people it serves would be worse off.
Between 2015 and 2019, city government received an increasing number of complaints about the organization related to loitering, destruction of surrounding property and security issues. At the July 22 Planning Commission meeting, a committee was formed to review Brother Benno’s conditional use permit (CUP), which allows the organization to operate at its 3260 Production Ave. location under certain conditions.
First started as a soup kitchen, Brother Benno’s now not only serves food six days a week but also provides mail services, showers, laundry, clothes, utility assistance, meal boxes, identification services, utility assistance and drug and alcohol rehabilitation, all for free.
Brother Benno’s is located in an industrial park close to the San Luis Rey riverbed, where a large encampment of homeless people live. Many businesses and residents feel that the center is attracting the homeless to the industrial park but is not doing enough to stop them from causing trouble for its neighbors.
Tim Armbruster is one of those residents. He lives with his wife, Crystal, and their 13-year-old son in a neighborhood located within a mile-and-a-half of Brother Benno’s and a half-mile from the riverbed.
“It’s pretty scary for us,” Armbruster said.
It became scarier for the couple when a homeless man attacked their son on July 5. According to Armbruster, his son was riding his bike with two friends around the same age along the San Luis Rey River Bike Trail when his bike chain fell off.
A man, later identified by authorities as 55-year-old Samson Marianito, reportedly called out to the boys then charged at them when they didn’t respond. Marianito grabbed Armbruster’s son and a struggle ensued. His son’s two friends eventually were able to get the man off of the 13-year-old by hitting him with sticks, Armbruster said.
When police later found Marianito, they also found meth and nunchucks.
“My son could have easily been killed,” Armbruster said.
Marianito has been charged with a misdemeanor and three felonies and is currently being held at Vista Detention Facility.
When Armbruster looked up Marianito, he found a long history of crime. He also found that one of Marianito’s listed addresses was the same as Brother Benno’s.
Since the incident, Armbruster said he has talked to each City Council member as well as the police chief and city attorney. He also began talking to his neighbors, and has since formed a group called SAFE OSIDE.
A ‘public safety issue’
Armbruster’s goal with SAFE OSIDE is to address public safety concerns in the city by working together with authorities, social service providers and community members.
“This whole incident has highlighted not only a quality of life issue but a public safety issue,” he said. “Things like this are happening to a lot of people.”
From Armbruster’s perspective, Brother Benno’s is “washing their hands” of the issue.
“They make statements like, ‘we can’t be responsible for things that don’t happen on our property,’” he said. “They need to acknowledge and take responsibility for the type of people they’re bringing into the neighborhood.”
Armbruster took a tour of Brother Benno’s and Bread of Life Rescue Mission, another Oceanside organization that serves the homeless. Armbruster prefers Bread of Life, which requires people to undergo a drug and alcohol test before granting them a “dinner card” giving them access to meals.
Armbruster feels that Brother Benno’s is “enabling” those that live in the riverbed.
“They are providing everything a drug addict needs: mail service, clothing, food, everything they need to live a drug addict life in that area except drugs,” he said. “So then what happens is those people result to petty crime or panhandling to fill the drug part.”
Armbruster wants Brother Benno’s CUP to be reviewed and potentially revoked if it’s found in violation and doesn’t make the necessary changes.
Last November, police Chief Frank McCoy sent a memorandum regarding Brother Benno’s potential CUP violations to City Manager Michelle Skaggs Lawrence.
Under the CUP, Brother Benno’s was required to establish conduct rules for guests of its facility. According to McCoy, rules barring obscene language, fighting, weapons, loitering outside of the center and drugs and alcohol have been “frequently violated.”
“I believe the most consequential violation is the fact that The Center is proving ‘detrimental’ to the neighboring businesses in area [sic] based on the clients they serve,” McCoy said.
Armbruster wants to see Brother Benno’s “change its attitude” by taking responsibility; by implementing a drug testing requirement for the majority of its services, particularly for food; and to install an electronic system that keeps track of who it’s feeding.
Helen Parsons, a board member of Brother Benno’s, agrees with Armbruster in that she wants people to be safe. Parson has family that lives in the same area.
According to Parsons, a new security system at the center has helped to address issues around its facility. She added the organization is looking into implementing a system to better keep track of who is served. It will be expensive, but it’s something that can be done if the center can get the people it serves ID cards.
“We work hard to get them ID cards that they have to qualify for to get the food come in and have our services,” she said.
There is, however, a standoff with those who want the organization to refuse service to those on a “police list,” she said.
“We’re not refusing anybody,” she said.
The organization will “86” — meaning refuse service or kick out — people who create any problems while there.
Parsons often hears people compare Brother Benno’s to Bread of Life, an organization she admires yet acknowledges is different.
When asked about drug screening for services, Parsons said Brother Benno’s “does not discriminate.”
“I’m not sure that a mentally ill, hungry person is better than a mentally ill, fed person,” she said. “We don’t make that discrimination.”
The lost and found
One of the services Brother Benno’s provides is a 26-week drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
Ron Lamb is a graduate of that program. Now a beloved maintenance man for Brother Benno’s, Lamb once lived in the nearby riverbed.
A carpenter by trade, Lamb first moved to California for work in 2009. When work dried up, he became homeless.
“I’m an alcoholic drug addict, I’m not a burglar and I’m not a thief,” he said. “My whole life I worked hard and played hard, and that was my problem.”
On Aug. 23, 2012, Lamb woke up and decided he couldn’t live like that anymore, so he went to Brother Benno’s for help. He began a 10-day detox and has been sober ever since.
“I’m no better than anybody but I deserved better than what I was doing to myself,” he said.
Lamb said Brother Benno’s gave him the opportunity to find himself once again, and since then a lot of good things have happened. He even found love, having met a volunteer at the organization who later became his wife.
According to Lamb, the people who live in the riverbed aren’t there because of Brother Benno’s.
“Brother Benno’s gets a bad rep because of certain individuals that don’t even come here,” he said.
Marianito, the man who has been charged with the attack on Armbruster’s son, hadn’t been to Brother Benno’s since December 2018.
According to Parsons and Lamb, Oceanside’s problems won’t go away if Brother Benno’s ceases to exist. Instead, they believe the problems will get worse.
Rather than closing Brother Benno’s as a solution, Parsons noted more mental health services are needed for the area. She added that the Oceanside Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team has been a big help.
“Would we like to get them off the streets? We sure would. Here’s the bottom line: where would you like them to go? There is nowhere,” Parsons said. “We can kick them out of the riverbed, we get them out of here … where should they go?”
Photo Caption: Ron Lamb, who works as maintenance man for Brother Benno’s, holds up a picture of his former self. Lamb was once homeless and living in the San Luis Rey riverbed until he sought help from Brother Benno’s for his drug and alcohol addiction. Photo by Samantha Taylor.
Samantha Nelson covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son