HAYWARD — Church groups that distribute free food downtown should take the charity onto their own properties instead of "exporting" it to public parks, Mayor Mike Sweeney told a crowd of downtown merchants, pastors, homeowners and the homeless this week.

Speaking to an unexpectedly crowded Tuesday night meeting about how to improve downtown safety and cleanliness, Sweeney said that "quite frankly," he was not impressed with the way some volunteer groups conduct their charity efforts downtown.

By Wednesday, one organization, Neighborhood Church of Castro Valley, had announced it was suspending its food giveaways outside the Hayward Public Library.

Another, All Saints Catholic Church, had no immediate plans to call off its long-standing programs at Portuguese Park, but organizers said they were disappointed by the mayor's remarks.

"The work wasn't done to impress him," said Ralph Morales, a social justice organizer at All Saints. "As big as our church is, there isn't enough room to do all we need to do, let alone during the school hours when all the children are there."

The debate over downtown food giveaways, and whether they contribute to the business district's safety and appearance problems or help relieve them, was just one of a host of downtown issues debated during a meeting Tuesday night that attracted more than 100 people to City Hall.


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"We're having this discussion because there are a lot of problems in the downtown," Sweeney said at the meeting. "We have a lot of crazy and just flat-out irresponsible behavior that happens in the downtown."

Originally scheduled as a chance for the Hayward City Council to review a report on potential downtown improvements and how to implement them, the event turned into a lively public forum and had to be moved from a small conference room to the council chambers. Alfred Antonini, owner of a long-vacant bank building at 1004 B St., recounted a graphic story in which a woman pulled her pants down while he was trying to give a tour to prospective tenants.

"They need to feed them in their own backyards," Antonini said of the churches' charity efforts.

Others argued that the focus on the food programs was misplaced and exaggerated. Anthony Jewell, a homeless man, argued that "the people that come down for that are there for maybe a half hour and are gone."

Tom Green, the homeless-outreach coordinator for Neighborhood Church, wrote in a letter to city officials Wednesday that the Castro Valley institution has suspended its Saturday morning breakfast at the library "until the City develops a plan and process for conducting the breakfast in a permitted manner. We are hopeful that the city will move swiftly so that hunger in the cold months does not become a greater problem than those posed by a gathering of poor and homeless people."

In an interview, Green said his group had already been thinking about changing the program before listening to the comments made Tuesday by community members and elected officials.

"We'll probably continue the relationships with the people we have but more one-to-one," Green said. The church already hosts a group of mostly homeless people on Sundays. He said there continues to be a great need among the homeless downtown and few, if any, services for food, showers, laundry and shelter.

While the food programs caused debate, many in the crowd Tuesday were in favor of less controversial recommendations made in an eight-page city report drafted with the input of downtown business owners and the Hayward Chamber of Commerce.

City officials propose using money from the Hayward Redevelopment Agency to buy a sidewalk power sweeper, add some downtown police presence, and install better and more street lighting.

Sweeney also said he wants to set limits on drinking establishments and ban public smoking from a whole stretch of downtown.

Toughening city regulations has had mixed results in the past. An ordinance that took effect last year makes it easier for police to crack down on aggressive panhandlers, but it has been infrequently used. 

City Manager Greg Jones said some of the recommendations could come back to the council soon so that they can be voted on.