Mary’s Kitchen, a sanctuary for homeless O.C. residents, faces possible closure

A woman gets lunch at Mary's Kitchen
Starla Acosta, 65, has lunch at Mary’s Kitchen in Orange.
(Scott Smeltzer / Times Community News)

For Derek King and many like him, Mary’s Kitchen is a sanctuary.

King, who has been homeless for nearly a decade, found Mary’s Kitchen in Orange when he had reached his limit. Physically and spiritually malnourished, he was ready to give up.

Mary’s Kitchen provided him with food, a shower and clothing. It helped restore something that many homeless people have had to relinquish: Dignity.

He found meaning again, in the relationships he made and the spirituality fostered by the nonprofit’s leadership. “There’s times when the fear of living for nothing will strangle you,” King said.

His story isn’t uncommon.

Charles Cousert hadn’t eaten in days before he found Mary’s Kitchen, where he was given food and clothes. He said he would’ve died if it weren’t for the nonprofit.

“This place is literally a blessing,” Cousert said. “It’s a sanctuary.”


People ride on a bicycle
Craig Lasky and America Sanchez ride a bike at Mary’s Kitchen in Orange.
(Scott Smeltzer / Times Community News)

The homeless people who rely on Mary’s Kitchen said it’s the only place they can find everything they need. Led by Gloria Suess, the nonprofit provides three meals, six days a week, to anyone who seeks them out. There are also showers and laundry facilities available and the nonprofit receives mail for hundreds of clients.

During a recent visit, Michael Lohse, accompanied by his dog, Mildred, walked up to Suess and thanked her for helping him pay the overdue registration for his car. Like other visitors to the site, Lohse, who has suffered three strokes, has fallen on hard times. He said the nonprofit gave him $440 toward the $1,300 he needed so he could drive again.

“Whatever you need, you will get it from Gloria,” said Patrick Hogan, who volunteers at Mary’s Kitchen.

But after Orange city officials sent a demand letter last month terminating the nonprofit’s lease, the people who rely on Mary’s Kitchen are now wondering what they will do if it is closed.

On June 18, the city sent Mary’s Kitchen a letter terminating its lease three years early. The city is giving the nonprofit until Sept. 18 to move out and it asked for a move-out plan within two weeks.

The letter, signed by City Manager Rick Otto, says the city has been a leader in Orange County in supporting homeless efforts. But Mary’s Kitchen is the only homeless service provider listed in the city’s housing element.

Mary’s Kitchen, which has been operating in Orange since the mid-1980s, and has been at its location since 1994, is a humble nonprofit driven by donations and volunteers, some of whom are themselves homeless.

People serve food
Natalie Wolf, center, and other volunteers prepare meals for the homeless at Mary’s Kitchen in Orange.
(Scott Smeltzer / Times Community News)

While Otto’s letter commends Mary’s Kitchen, it goes on to say that the nonprofit’s actions only serve “to enable homelessness and can no longer be supported by the city.”

The letter says there has been an increase in crime and calls for police stemming from Mary’s Kitchen. The city says this has created an “unreasonable demand on city services.”

The letter adds that the city recently approved an affordable housing project nearby, which is incompatible with Mary’s Kitchen, located at the end of an industrial cul-de-sac. An Orange Police Department office is also on the street. There aren’t any homes there.

Suess, president and chief executive of the nonprofit, said in a phone interview that Mary’s Kitchen has complied with requests from the city in the past to install security cameras and a guard.

“Anything they asked us to do, we did,” she said.

Suess said that the city doesn’t want Mary’s Kitchen to be serving people who aren’t from Orange, but that’s not compatible with the nonprofit’s mission to serve anyone who’s hungry.

“We don’t judge who deserves food or not,” she said. “We’re taking care of those that truly need the help….

“I don’t think Orange understands, all these people who have considered Mary’s their home all these years, where are they going to go? Where are they going to get their mail? Where are they going to get the showers? Where are they going to eat?”

Mary’s Kitchen and some in the community are pushing back.

The nonprofit has hired attorney Brooke Weitzman, who sent the city a letter on July 9 contending that the demand letter doesn’t include a substantive reason for prematurely ending the lease. It asks the city to rescind the letter.

“The notice fails to meet both substantive and procedural standards for early termination of agreement,” the letter says. “The only reference to the lease in the notice states that the city may terminate the agreement; however, it fails to detail any reason supported by the terms of the agreement.

“Despite acknowledgment of the critical support Mary’s has over the years, the letter draws baseless conclusions that are simply not supported by facts, effectively blaming Mary’s Kitchen for the city’s failure to address the housing crisis, healthcare needs of its most impoverished residents, and any and all other issues in the public space outside of Mary’s Kitchen property. Surely no term in the lease puts the burden on Mary’s Kitchen to redress the city’s failures to meet the needs of low-income and unhoused individuals.”

Weitzman’s letter also calls for the city to determine the environmental impact of closing Mary’s Kitchen to keep in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act.

The letter says that water and soil can be contaminated from the loss of Mary’s Kitchen’s hygiene facilities, and other public areas could be affected as unhoused people are forced to relocate.

“The immediate closure of a service provider leaving an estimated 150-200 people per day without this safe place to sit, receive meals to eat and clothes to wear, access mail, access hygiene facilities, use laundry facilities and more will inevitably have an impact on the environment,” the letter says.

Weitzman also argues that the lease termination violates the city’s housing element, which requires Orange to consider homeless people, low-income people, seniors and disabled people — all of whom frequent Mary’s Kitchen. Weitzman notes in the letter that Mary’s Kitchen is the only homeless services provider in the city listed in its housing element.

The letter adds that the city must “make adequate provision in its housing element for the existing and projected needs of all economic segments of its community, including its homeless population.”

Orange spokesman Paul Sitkoff said in an email that he couldn’t comment on the closure of Mary’s Kitchen because of potential pending litigation.

Weitzman said in a phone interview that she wonders who in the city is leading the effort to close Mary’s Kitchen after decades of its existence.

“There hasn’t been a public meeting, so I know the letter came from the city manager, but this is being driven by whom?” she said. “This type of thing would normally be a decision by the City Council, especially given the long history of service to the community. It’s very unclear because there has been no public involvement.”

Mary’s Kitchen is collecting signatures from supporters to show the city how crucial it is to the community. Suess said she wants a few thousand signatures before sending them to the city.

The community is also backing the nonprofit. Several members of the public showed up to a recent City Council meeting to criticize the city and voice their support for Mary’s Kitchen.

“This city has lost its soul,” resident Heidi Zimmermann said at the meeting.

The city declined to provide crime stats on Mary’s Kitchen, despite its claims of increased crime in the area. The city called the nonprofit a nuisance in its letter, but there were no signs of that during a recent visit to Mary’s Kitchen.

Dozens of people ate their lunches and chatted with one another. Some slept in the shade. All became quiet as Suess recited a prayer through a bullhorn. Many stood and some removed their hats.

“Send blessings on Mary’s Kitchen,” Suess said.

“Amen,” they said.

For those who regularly gather at the sanctuary, losing Mary’s Kitchen is more than just losing access to food and goods. The camaraderie and support from Suess, the volunteers and one another gives them hope and meaning.

“I come here more for the community than the food, even though the food is pretty good,” said Starla Acosta, who has been living in her car for about five years, the same amount of time she’s been coming to Mary’s Kitchen.

Acosta met her close friend Ron at Mary’s Kitchen. She calls him her baby brother.

Ron, who declined to give his last name, said Mary’s Kitchen helps all kinds of people. For many, it helps sustain them as they get through a rough spot in life. Since Ron was injured on the job two years ago, he’s been coming to Mary’s Kitchen off and on. He has a job now, but he continues to come and see his friends.

Ron said he couldn’t sleep the night he heard about the potential closure.

“It would be a tragedy,” he said.

Brazil writes for Times Community News.