Ministry that serves downtown homeless in crisis

After 97 years in San Diego, God’s Extended Hand may be preparing to serve its last meals to homeless people downtown.

The ministry is facing numerous building code violations at its property on the corner of 16th Street and Island Avenue, and board members say they may be ordered to cease operation in the near future.

Attorney Thanasi Preovolos has been helping the ministry navigate negotiations with the city, but he said it’s still unclear how much it would cost to bring the building up to code.

“There’s really a couple of choices,” he said. “They’ll either have to find the money to make the repairs, or sell the property.”

The Rev. Simeon Corona, who became board president about two months ago, said he hopes the ministry can continue, but it may have to live on in another building.

“Everything’s on the table right now considering what’s best for the ministry,” he said. “Do we tear it down and build a functional structure? We’re just questioning and wondering the best route for it.”

While the ministry isn’t as well known as Father Joe’s Villages or the San Diego Rescue Mission, anyone who has driven past their building probably has noticed its bright yellow exterior and colorful mosaic mural created about 10 years ago by art teacher Jeremy Wright and students at San Dieguito Academy.

Homeless people stand outside the God’s Extended Hand on the corner of Island Avenue and 16th Street, where meals are served twice a day.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It’s also hard to miss the many homeless people who line up in the morning and late afternoons to receive a free meal.

Preovolos suspects that sight may have led to city inspectors first visiting the building a few years ago. God’s Extended Hand had operated at the corner since buying the building in 1983, but he said he thinks city inspectors came in response to complaints from people who had moved into a high-rise apartment building that opened across the street a few years ago.

The ministry was founded as the Full Gospel Rescue Mission in 1924 by Maud Blackstone as a way to help struggling World War I vets. She ran the Fifth Avenue mission until 1954, when she turned it over to Winnifred Smith, known as Sister Winnie, who renamed the ministry God’s Extended Hand and ran it until 2003. She died in 2004.

The 16th Street and Island Avenue property includes three cottages and an 1889 two-story building with small residential units upstairs. The lower floor had two taverns, including one called the Baseball Inn, when the building was purchased.

Those are long gone, though the long mirror that once stood behind one of the bars still is on the south wall of what now is the chapel and dining hall.

The ministry used to operate an evening shelter for women and children on the lower floor for several years, but Corona said that ended a few years ago after a city official said it was not permitted.

According to an email from Leslie Branscomb, senior public information officer at the city attorney’s office, enforcement officers began documenting serious health and safety code violations at the building in 2014. Besides those violations, which were considered a threat to the lives of clients and employees, the city also documented criminal and drug activity on the site, she wrote.

The violations were not corrected, and the case was referred to the city attorney’s Nuisance Abatement Unit, which served God’s Extended Hand a notice of violation on Jan. 31, 2019. After working with the ministry for two years, the violations still have not been corrected, Branscomb wrote.

The Rev. Richard Daniels speaks a service at God's Extended Hand.

The Rev. Richard Daniels speaks a service at God’s Extended Hand, where he also lives. Daniels later helped served meals to about 50 people that morning.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Our Nuisance Abatement Unit protects our residents by enforcing laws that keep all of us safe,” San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott said in an email. “We appreciate the important work performed by God’s Extended Hand in serving our city’s most vulnerable residents, but they must follow the law in doing so. The current situation — building code violations, drug activity, and other criminal conduct — poses an unacceptable risk to human life and cannot continue.”

The city cited the ministry for plumbing and electrical work done without permits. Other unpermitted work included the reconstruction of two staircases, conversion of a storage room into a commercial kitchen, alternations and additions to the second floor, installation of an outdoor laundry facility and conversion of a dwelling unit into a storage room to distribute clothes to people in need.

The city ordered the ministry to make several changes immediately in January 2019, and gave them 45 days to submit plans to bring violations into compliance.

The ministry’s leadership has seen several turnovers since then. The board president who had been dealing with the city stepped down after having a stroke, his replacement stepped down about a month ago and board member Corona, pastor at St. Gregory of Nyssa Greek Orthodox Church in El Cajon, stepped in to lead the nonprofit.

Steve Simmonds has been a board member about two years and the treasurer for about two months. He said he submitted an application asking for unpermitted work to be permitted, but he has not heard back and said he is not optimistic.

Simmonds said the ministry’s bank account has just about $17,000. The nonprofit takes in about $4,000 a month in donations but has $6,000 in monthly expenses, and he is looking at ways to cut costs.

Board members said they are considering starting an online fundraiser. Donations also can be made at the ministry’s official website,

Simmonds invited an architect and a former city inspector to the building last week, and he said he felt a bit encouraged when they said some of the work could be brought up to code.

Still, he said, the building has many problems and is showing its age.

Ray Zeher stands in the clothes room at God's Extended Hand.

Ray Zeher, who has lived at God’s Extended Hand for about 40 years, stands in the room where clothes are stored to be distributed to people in need.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ray Zeher, 74, has lived at God’s Extended Hand for 40 years and is in charge of the residential program that has 14 other tenants. He is not optimistic he will be staying much longer.

“This building can’t be saved,” he said as he examined termite damage at a window sill in one of the upstairs residential units.

Walking around the building, Zeher pointed out a porch that was added onto one of the cottages a few years ago and said it was built well, but without a permit.

Some structural oddities already were at the building when it was purchased in 1983, he said. In what looks like a precarious addition, the laundry room on the second floor overhangs about six feet over the back of the building and is supported by a tall wooden pillar that sits on a single brick.

After 40 years in the building, Zeher has accepted that it may be time to move on.

“I went out looking for what apartments cost, and I got one application out,” he said.

Roy Fontenot sits in his room at God's Extended Hand, where he has lived more than 40 years

Roy Fontenot sits in his room at God’s Extended Hand, where he has lived more than 40 years

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Roy Fontenot, 85, lives in one of the cottages and has been a resident since 1981.

“I’m worried a little bit, but God’s been good to us for 97 years,” he said about the possibility that he will have to move.

Robert Campbell, 53, is one of the newer residents, having moved in just five months ago. He was homeless for about six months after he could no longer pay rent at a sobering house where he was living when the pandemic hit.

“This turned me around completely, physically and spiritually,” he said about the impact God’s Extended Hand has had on him.

Like Fontenot, Campbell also said he was not too worried about his future because he puts his faith in God.

On a recent morning, people lined up outside the building before 9 a.m. for breakfast. At 9:30, the Rev. Richard Daniels, who also is a resident, was in front of the room delivering a full-throated sermon before about 50 people.

“We have to allow God’s spirit to transform us when we’re weak,” he said as part of his morning message.

After the sermon, he served full plates of French toast, boiled eggs and rice and shrimp to a line that stretched the length of the room. A sign behind Daniels read, “NO seconds. Do not come up for another tray.” Another line of people outside were served to-go boxes.

Daniels said that as a man of faith, he was not too worried about his own future. He was, however, worried about the people he had just fed.

“Of course there’s a level of concern,” he said. “It pains me to even walk by them when they’re the same people we see in here. I’d be a hypocrite to say, ‘I love Jesus,’ and then say, ‘You’re on your own.’”