Local News

Monday, Nov 19 2012 06:28 PM

Burrito Project wrapped up in permit problems

BY CHRISTINE BEDELL Californian government editor cbedell@bakersfield.com

A volunteer group that annually feeds burritos to the homeless on Thanksgiving Day at Central Park downtown is desperately searching for someone to donate a new site after learning it'd need city park permits that it can't afford.

The Bakersfield Burrito Project folks need a hall, church or similar facility in the downtown area that, like Central Park at Mill Creek, is close to where many homeless people are, said Jason Rickett, a board member for the group, which is seeking but has not officially obtained its tax-exempt nonprofit status.

They can't cover the approximately $1,000 for a Bakersfield Recreation and Parks Department permit or meet other city requirements in such short order, Rickett said. He doesn't have a big beef with Rec and Parks -- it's just following the rules, he said. He's more concerned with finding a new location and getting the word out to the homeless that they won't get their burritos at Central Park this year.

"How do you tell a bunch of homeless people who don't have cellphones, who don't have TVs, that we cannot do this any longer?" Rickett said.

For the last three years, the Bakersfield Burrito Project has typically fed about 200 homeless people who trickle in and out each Thanksgiving morning. The volunteers and other groups, including the Girl Scouts this year, also pass out clothes, water and hygiene kits.

Project workers also hand out burritos to a smaller group of homeless people at tiny Weill Park at Q and James streets every Sunday. The future of that effort is also in doubt.

"We're just people helping people," said group CEO and founder Belinda Lopez, who often knows not only the names but the life histories of the many homeless she helps, Rickett said. "That's all we are."

On Friday the group obtained a $125 facility reservation permit for a family picnic of 30 people, said Terry McCormick, a supervisor at the city parks department. Rickett said he thought that's all the organization needed because that's how many people typically are at its event at one time.

When McCormick saw a local TV news story about the burrito feed Monday morning, she looked up the permit and determined it didn't meet requirements. Events open to the public require a special event permit, which can only be obtained by organizations with official nonprofit status (or who have a sponsor with such status), McCormick said. They also need insurance coverage of at least $1 million that also names the city as co-insured.

She calculated Burrito Project would have to buy permits at a total cost of $1,075, though of that a $500 cleaning deposit could be refunded. McCormick said the insurance costs vary by policy.

The city can't make exceptions for good causes, she said. The insurance coverage limits liability, McCormick said, and the nonprofit requirement ensures organizations don't run for-profit enterprises on city property (unless, for example, they have a contract with the city where the city gets a percentage of the take).

The burrito folks probably may also need county environmental health permits for preparing and distributing food; officials there couldn't be reached in time Monday to get a rundown of the rules.

Lopez said the group learned it needed park permits last Thanksgiving when a police officer showed up and told them. She said Burrito Project tried to follow the rules this year.

"We're doing everything we possibly can to do things correctly," she said.

McCormick said that if the Burrito Project organizers get a nonprofit sponsor and buy the necessary permits, she may be able to cut them a break on one requirement -- that the permits are secured two weeks in advance.

For more information about the Bakersfield Burrito Project, go to www.facebook.com/BakoBurrito/info.

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