In 1999 a woman named Catherine Ryan-Hyde living in Cambria, California wrote a book and called it “Pay It Forward.” It was a big hit and was even made into a movie. The story of “Pay It Forward” tells how a young boy doing a school project helps three people in need and then asks them to “pay it forward” to three other people with the intention of creating a human chain that would go on forever. While that chain of reactions may not have gone on forever as hoped, each of those actions contributed to a movement that is alive and well, especially here on the Central Coast of California. Some people call it mutual aid.
My own story
When the pandemic hit, many people lost jobs because everything shut down. As a freelance writer, I made my living interviewing and writing about community members, area businesses, local travel and a variety of events for one special newspaper. That came to a crashing stop with the pandemic. At the same time, I was having some health issues so taking a break was almost welcome and I relied on pandemic unemployment. But when restrictions were lifted, my expectations of returning to work the way I had previously weren’t met.
Things had changed and I had to face the fact that I must get along on a lot less money when unemployment ended. How was I going to pay my rent and the rest of my bills? How could I afford food? I never thought I would have to rely on assistance; however I soon became acquainted with mutual aid and began to receive three bags of nutritious food every other week from The Kindness Coalition, a local volunteer group. I also learned about resources for utility bill help, medical prescription help, and access to the federal SNAP program from both the Morro Bay Resource office and Los Osos Cares.
A little local history
Four small towns sit along the north coast of San Luis Obispo County in California with populations ranging from 15,700 to a low of 2,200. The larger towns, with only one being an incorporated city, have more resources for their residents to find help, whether that be from government agencies or civic and nonprofit organizations. Among the locals, an attitude of helpfulness has always been present. That may have come from earlier decades when the area was peopled mostly by retired elderly folks who were still robust and healthy and looking for things to do. From environmental projects to offering the welcome wagon to new residents, many filled their time volunteering.
In the early 1990s, things began to change. More families moved north from Los Angeles, or out from the Central Valley, or south from the Bay area looking for a less congested area to raise children. With that, housing costs rose, and good paying jobs became scarce. Morro Bay, which had prospered thanks to the power plant located on the waterfront, saw a decline as the plant began to close with a complete shutdown by the year 2000. Many people began to suffer hard times and suddenly it seemed we saw homeless people living on the streets for the first time.
Homelessness is the issue around which Morro Bay Nonviolent was created in 2016 through the Pace e Bene Nonviolent Cities Project. It soon became apparent how easily people could both be subjected to and resort to violent behavior while trying to deal with a life on the street. And it was not only the homeless that teetered on the brink of violence in these hard times. Rates of domestic violence increased. Attitudes of intolerance were more frequently displayed in comments on a variety of social media sites. Several racial incidents occurred, and these were handled poorly by police. When people’s needs went unmet, violent attitudes and behaviors grew. It was obvious something needed to change.
Concerned citizens studied how to counter this. Civic organizations went from gatherings of “good old boys” to groups of men and women chipping in monetarily with funds to aid people in need. People weren’t waiting for systems to create solutions — they were taking charge and providing what they could themselves. The SLO Food Bank, a local nonprofit, began food distributions at a variety of sites. As it became obvious that more people were falling into poverty and needing assistance, the people of Morro Bay began the Estero Bay Alliance for Care, or EBAC, opening a city-sponsored resource office with reliable information as to where one could go to obtain help. Mutual aid was growing. By the time of the pandemic, this group was made up of 10 different mutual aid groups and county social services.
I began volunteering with EBAC, ultimately joining their efforts with Morro Bay Nonviolent. As things began to return somewhat to normal, in the last few years mutual aid organizations were looking for marketing help. I returned to writing and concentrated on doing public relations for the different groups that were working to offer help. We worked to uplift mutual aid efforts by collaborating with city officials, the police department, Morro Bay Nonviolent and EBAC so that more people could find out about these important resources.
We still pay it forward
The past few years have seen new organizations and groups develop. Members of the Lions Club along with church groups and other interested citizens formed the Food Group taking turns cooking full hot meals weekly that are served at the Vet’s Hall in Morro Bay on Monday evenings for the homeless and anyone in the community.
Rotary clubs offer grants to mutual aid organizations to help continue the work. Other service clubs like Kiwanis and Elks do clothing drives and fundraising for local groups.
Yes We Can Peacebuilders, a nonviolence education organization offers workshops and discussion groups on nonviolence principles to help change attitudes and procured a peace proclamation from the mayor and city council in 2018 and a second proclamation in 2022 from the city council. The proclamation states in part, “While endeavoring to have peace prevail in Morro Bay, the city is committed to promote understanding, and establishing economic opportunity to improve the quality of life of the people of our region. The City of Morro Bay will work together with citizens to create and implement initiatives that not only foster peace and nonviolence but create a positive and lasting change in the community, seeking to become a model for other communities.”
And through mutual aid, citizens have stepped up in tangible ways to improve the quality of life for their neighbors.
Since the issues didn’t only touch the city of Morro Bay, Los Osos Cares, a similar resource office, formed to aid people in the largest unincorporated town on the north coast, Los Osos. The Kindness Coalition from the small town of Cayucos stepped in to make sure that children in the government-funded school lunch program would get a free nutritious lunch while schools in all four north coast towns were closed due to the pandemic.
This mutual aid group now supplies three full bags of food to families in need every week and has extended that service to seniors. Meals that Connect and the Open Arm Pantry filled in for any resident suffering food insecurity. A Wednesday night free dinner for the homeless and other community members began in Los Osos. This gives area homeless and residents in need two days a week when they are guaranteed a free hot meal.
Laundry With Love offers once a month free laundry service for anyone who needs this service. Sometimes just obtaining clean clothes has made a huge change in the life of a homeless person.
While government officials and the Morro Bay Mental Health Officer work with homeless people in the area on crisis intervention for drug and alcohol use, People Self Help Housing works to obtain affordable housing for them, and mutual aid groups lend support through providing a variety of food, clothing and employment opportunities.
EBAC and Los Osos Cares, along with Social Services, Senior Housing, Mobile Home Ombudsman, Womenade, Senior Aid, the Veterans Administration, Yes We Can Peacebuilders, County Food Bank, Hopes Village, Morro Bay Police Department, and the Morro Bay City Council now meet once a month and work together to help with monetary, mental health and housing aid for the communities of Morro Bay, Los Osos, Cayucos and Cambria. Collaboration has been the key to our success — mutual aid allows people to offer what they have without waiting for slower systems, and having the support of official channels amplifies the impact of these efforts.
This article appeared in the September 2023 online issue of Waging Nonviolence and in the Blog of Pace e Bene Campaign Nonviolence.