Soup’s Off at Community Center

Times Staff Writer

The operator of a Costa Mesa soup kitchen said Tuesday that she will close the facility, which will force hundreds of people to seek help elsewhere.

Merle Hatleberg said the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen at the Rea Community Center will be closed in part to ease neighborhood objections to other community groups at the center. Hatleberg was reacting to the Costa Mesa City Council, which on Monday night voted to close the soup kitchen and vacate the site in response to complaints from neighbors who said the kitchen and other groups based at the center have attracted “undesirables.”

The vote was the outcome of a deal Hatleberg had made earlier to relocate her kitchen as a sacrificial move to try to save the other groups “who provide such essential services.”

“There are too many people coming into the area, everybody agrees on that,” Hatleberg said. “But there are organizations (at the center) like the medical clinic that provide so much to the needy. If my eliminating the 150 people who use my kitchen daily will help, then I think it will be worth the effort.”


While city officials, neighbors and other groups based at the center expressed hope that removal of the kitchen will alleviate strains in the community, almost no one sees the move as a final solution to the conflict.

In fact, until Monday’s decision, most neighbors’ complaints have centered on Share Our Selves, a group that runs a free medical clinic and provides food, clothing and other items to the needy that is also located at Rea Community Center, near Hamilton Street and Meyer Place on the west side of town.

Other groups based at the center include a senior citizen day care center, of which Hatleberg is director, a boys and girls club and High Hopes, which serves brain-damaged patients.

Currently, the SOS food and clothing program is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the clinic operates in the early mornings and some evenings. SOS serves more than 200 people daily.


Some criticized Monday’s 3-2 council vote as simply a measure to placate angry neighbors, and as one that would not significantly reduce the numbers of transients and others in the area.

“I don’t think the soup kitchen is responsible for the impact on the neighborhood,” said Councilman Orville Amburgey, who along with Councilman Ed Glasgow voted against its removal. “The council majority joined with SOS and offered the soup kitchen as a sacrificial lamb.”

Amburgey had originally offered a motion to cancel the city’s lease with SOS and order it to move from the center, but that motion was voted down and another ordering the removal of the soup kitchen was passed.

The council also agreed on reassessing conditions in the neighborhood after 90 days to determine if removing the soup kitchen has had an impact.

Opponents of SOS said they are willing to wait and see.

“I think the truth will come out, if SOS is the major problem,” said Barbara Littrell, who lives opposite the center and has urged in the past that SOS be removed. “I feel the only true answer is to remove them, but I will wait and see what happens.”

‘Think We Were Put on Notice’

Proponents of SOS, meanwhile, were not buoyed by the council’s decision.


“I think we were put on notice that SOS needs to look for another place,” said SOS founder and director Jean Forbath. “We are hoping that won’t happen but that seemed to be the tenor of things.”

Forbath said her group has tried to respond to some of the complaints neighbors have voiced by urging clients to seek help elsewhere, but she said many of the residents’ fears are unfounded or exaggerated.

She pointed to a 3-day survey undertaken by a task force formed last October to study the impact of SOS on the neighborhood. Police patrolled the streets around the center every hour from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and counted about 200 people using SOS services, rather than the several hundred more that neighbors had alleged.

Additionally, according to task force member Keith Van Hold, the city’s director of leisure services, it was found that most SOS clients arrived on foot or by public transportation rather than by car, as many residents had complained, and did not traverse neighborhood streets to get to the center.

But opponents of SOS called the survey meaningless and charged that transients attracted to the center pose a threat to their safety.

A flyer distributed at Monday’s council meeting, for example, alleged that the “high crime problem” in the area was ascribable to SOS, that police responded to more calls in the area than anywhere except South Coast Plaza, and that police agencies throughout the county stake out the area because it is a “known hangout” for criminals. The flyer alleged that clients of SOS were involved in public drunkenness, loitering and littering, and were harassing and frightening women and children.

Not a Hangout, Chief Says

Costa Mesa Police Chief David L. Snowden said Tuesday that “98%" of the allegations are false.


Snowden said that according to crime statistics gathered last September, the area around the Rea Community Center had the second lowest crime rate in the city. The area is not a “well-known hangout for criminals,” he added.