A mix of Grover Beach residents and congregation members gathered Sunday for service outside the Hillside Church, where they heard a sermon that spoke out against plans to transform the church into a homeless shelter.
The project, which is being designed and advocated for by 5 Cities Homeless Coalition and People’s Self Help Housing, would include housing for the homeless as well as a troubled youth program.
Hillside Church Pastor Willie Heck said in a video posted on Facebook Sunday that he was holding a service for members of the congregation elsewhere. But John Fleming, a member of the Hillside Church congregation, assumed the role of pastor on Sunday and held his own service outside the church on Newport Avenue.
“Our church was locked and we were told that was the last service we’d have in there but God had a different opinion,” Fleming said.
Grover Beach police stood watch as Fleming preached to a group of newcomers, who attended the service to show solidarity for a church that’s in the process of being sold for use as a homeless shelter.
“The neighbors all wanted to support us,” Hillside Church Board Member Linda Georgiatis said. “I think they deserve to have a nice neighborhood and I hope we can give that to them.”
Neighbors of the church, like Robert Downey, listened on as Fleming prayed the church would not be turned into a homeless center as planned.
“Our sign says ‘right idea wrong location,'” Downey said. “We’ve been called nimbys and homeless haters and we’re anything but that.”
Downey and other neighbors have safety concerns about turning this church into a homeless center with 20 permanent housing units and up to 44 beds for transitional housing. Opponents also raised questions about whether the church was sold in a lawful way.
“They just said ‘here it is, it’s coming and you’ve got to accept it’, and that’s unacceptable,” Downey said.
The City did hold a public meeting in February on the plans, which require re-zoning the 3-acre lot from low density residential to mixed use.
The concept plan submitted last month to City Council includes two phases of construction that include building housing units, administrative offices and an on-site manager’s unit.
The plan notes the perfect timing of state grants becoming available coinciding with Hillside Church going up for sale.
“In discussions with (the property owners) they agreed to work with us on an extended time line for purchase, dependent on funding,” the plan states.
Two other locations — 330 S. Halcyon in Arroyo Grande and 5 Cities Medical on 4th and El Camino in Pismo Beach — were considered but Hillside was deemed the best option.
“The Hillside Church property is located near exceptional off-site amenities including public transit, a park, library, grocery store, and pharmacy,” that plan states. “Proximity to these amenities does not only enhance the health and well-being of the people who will be served, but also, will make the project more competitive when leveraging local investments for federal and state resources.”
The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors has already approved the $2.6 million in funding to buy the church.
If approved by City Council, construction on the project would begin in September of 2020.
But Fleming said the will of God and this makeshift congregation will prevail.
“I honestly believe next Sunday we will worship inside the sanctuary,” Fleming said.