As city of Orange threatens Mary’s Kitchen with closure, state officials come to defense of homeless nonprofit

State Sen. Dave Min takes a tour of Mary's Kitchen, a homeless service provider, in Orange.
State Sen. Dave Min takes a tour of Mary’s Kitchen, a homeless service provider, in Orange. The city is threatening to close Mary’s Kitchen.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

When the city of Orange sent Mary’s Kitchen a letter prematurely terminating its lease last month, many of the hundreds of homeless people the nonprofit serves were left wondering what they will do next.

Many of them rely on the various services that Mary’s Kitchen offers, which includes 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 people.

But the nonprofit is not giving up on its clients.

Mary’s Kitchen has been fighting back, hiring an attorney to represent them against the city and now amassing the support of state officials.

On Thursday morning, state Sen. Dave Min and Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva took a tour of Mary’s Kitchen and voiced their support for the nonprofit.

Quirk-Silva said she’s known about Mary’s Kitchen for years but heard about the lease termination about six weeks ago. Mary’s Kitchen has been operating in Orange since the mid-1980s and its been at its current location, at 517 W. Struck Ave., since 1994.

Mary’s Kitchen is a humble nonprofit driven by donations and volunteers, some of whom are themselves homeless.

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva speaks to Mary's Kitchen client Gilberto Ventrura during a tour of the nonprofit.
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva speaks to Mary’s Kitchen client Gilberto Ventrura during a tour of the nonprofit.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Quirk-Silva said that some cities in Orange County, like Santa Ana and Fullerton, have taken an active role in working to alleviate homelessness in the county. However, there are other cities that aren’t doing much, she said, adding that Orange has a responsibility to help fix the homeless crisis.

“So here, Orange has this one example that we can clearly see is being used, and now they’re going to push this out,” Quirk-Silva said. “What’s their strategy for closing this and how are they going to respond? The truth is, they don’t want to. They want to just close this down and then let somebody else deal with the problem.”

Min said he heard about the potential closure of Mary’s Kitchen about three weeks ago.

“My immediate reaction was, ‘Why is the city of Orange trying to get rid of one of the few service providers in its city?’” Min said.

Min said it’s an attempt to sweep the problem of homelessness under the rug. Yet he said that closing Mary’s Kitchen would only exacerbate the issue, as the homeless individuals who frequent the nonprofit will then spread into the wider community.

“They’re not going to disappear,” Min said. “They’re going to still be in Orange County, still in this area. They’re just going to move to the streets. They’re going to move to bus shelters. They’re going to get less care. They’re going to be sicker and it will cost us more, as far as our services.

“Homelessness is not a city-by-city problem, it’s a regional problem. As someone who represents Orange but also a number of other cities that are impacted by homelessness, if Orange shuts this place down, that will overall have detrimental impacts to the region I represent. So I think it’s totally appropriate for me to weigh in here as a state representative.”

Michael Sean Wright, founder of Wound Walk OC — which provides first-aid treatment to the homeless, echoed Min’s remarks on Thursday.

“People here are accustomed to know that they can come here to get help,” Wright said. “If we were to shut down this community resource, where are these folks going to go?”

Mary's Kitchen president and CEO Gloria Suess, right, speaks with Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

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

Gloria Suess, who leads the nonprofit, said that having the backing of the state officials gives her more faith that Mary’s Kitchen will be able to stay open.

“I am just so hopeful now,” Suess said. “I just know that with all this continued support and all the prayers, that the city will have a change of heart. I truly believe that. And we can continue keeping people alive long enough for miracles to happen.”

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

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

Mary's Kitchen president and CEO Gloria Suess leads clients in prayer.
Mary’s Kitchen president and CEO Gloria Suess leads clients in prayer.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

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 also says that the city recently approved an affordable housing project nearby, which is “incompatible” with Mary’s Kitchen, and is located at the end of an industrial cul de sac. An Orange Police Department headquarters is on the street, but there aren’t any homes.

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

Homeless people and others who need assistance enter Mary's Kitchen, a homeless service provider in Orange.
Homeless people and others who need assistance enter Mary’s Kitchen, a homeless service provider in Orange.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

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 impacted as homeless people are forced to relocate.

Weitzman also argues that the lease termination violates the city’s housing element, which requires the city to consider homeless people, low-income people, seniors and disabled people — all of whom frequent Mary’s Kitchen.

On Thursday, Weitzman said during an interview at Mary’s Kitchen that they’re hoping the city responds to the growing support behind the nonprofit and rescinds the lease termination before any lawsuit has to be filed. Weitzman said she will be working on sending another legal letter to the city over the next couple weeks.

“We haven’t filed anything yet because we’re still hoping that as there’s more and more attention to it, the city realizes that the voters overwhelmingly support Mary’s and will reconsider,” Weitzman said.

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