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Soup Kitchen Founder Facing Move Is Optimistic : She Hopes to Keep Ladling

Times Staff Writer

Merle Hatleberg surveyed the dozens of smiling, contented faces that had just partaken of a special Easter dinner, and pronounced herself satisfied.

But from somewhere at the back of the volunteer serving line Friday at the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa came the inevitable quip: “I hope this ‘Last Supper’ is not literally the last.”

Hatleberg, 65, became the center of controversy recently when angry residents living near Costa Mesa’s Rea Community Center complained that her soup kitchen attracts too many poor and homeless people to the neighborhood.

Although other service groups at the Hamilton Street center also cater to the needy--most notably Share Our Selves, a center that provides food, clothing, rent vouchers and medical care for the poor and homeless--Hatleberg agreed with city officials to try to find another home for her soup kitchen to ease tensions.

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Hatleberg has yet to find a new location, but she said she is optimistic that her 2 1/2-year-old operation will survive to serve another Easter dinner.

“I am working with the city to find another place. But wherever we go, there will be people there who need us,” she said.

Friday, though, was a time for feasting, not worrying, she said.

Although she normally serves about 150 people a day, more than 250 people showed up on Friday for plates of chicken, ham, fish, yams, potato salad, rolls and Hatleberg’s special soup of the day--broccoli-cheese.

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The diners were served on tables laid out with yellow tablecloths and napkins and decorated with vases of freshly cut purple sweet peas.

“This is great; I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Sharon Witzke, 28, an Anaheim woman who stopped by after learning about the hot meal while visiting Share Our Selves.

Witzke said she and her two children, Stephanie, 5, and Melissa, 4, have lived on the street since she recently lost her job. Places such as the soup kitchen are vitally needed, she said.

“It’s especially rough with the children, and it’s important that they at least have one good meal a day,” she said.

Some of Hatleberg’s other clients said they are sad that the soup kitchen has to relocate.

“I’ve been coming in here regularly for the past 2 years and I think what Merle is doing is fantastic,” said Ross, a 43-year-old Costa Mesa construction worker who declined to give his last name. “I don’t see these people causing any problems around here because they appreciate what they have. The real issues are politics and image. But I think we have a moral right to be here.”

Among the 25 or so volunteers who ladled soup from huge pots and handed out little Easter baskets filled with jelly beans and colored eggs, the general opinion was that no matter where Hatleberg’s soup kitchen ends up, they will be there to help.


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