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As shutdown of Mary’s Kitchen draws near, Orange officials open up about reasons for supporting eviction

The city of Orange held a "navigation day" in front of Mary's Kitchen.
The city of Orange held a “navigation day” in front of Mary’s Kitchen.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

As the closure of Mary’s Kitchen draws near, the city of Orange seems intent on shutting down the longstanding homeless nonprofit.

After remaining silent for weeks, Orange officials voiced their support for the shutdown of Mary’s Kitchen during a homeless “navigation day” that the city set up in front of the nonprofit. Officials said the event was meant to help connect the nonprofit’s homeless clients with other resources ahead of its closure. Officials said the city will hold a few more events before the nonprofit closes. Members of the press received invitations to attend the navigation day.

Though the nonprofit has gathered support from the community and politicians, city officials contend that Mary’s Kitchen can no longer operate at its current location due to public-safety issues and a belief that the facility doesn’t play a role in the county’s continuum of care approach to solving homelessness, identified as a “comprehensive regional” strategy.

Mary’s Kitchen has been operating in Orange since the mid-1980s and has been at its current location, 517 W. Struck Ave., since 1994.

A nonprofit driven by donations and volunteers, about 200 people have come to rely on the various services that Mary’s Kitchen offers, which includes three meals, six days a week, to anyone who seeks them out. Showers and laundry facilities are available, and the nonprofit receives mail for hundreds of people.

However, the city sent Mary’s Kitchen a letter in June terminating its lease three years early, giving the nonprofit until Sept. 18 to move out.

Starla Acosta, 65, has lunch at Mary's Kitchen in Orange.
Starla Acosta, 65, has lunch at Mary’s Kitchen in Orange.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

An online petition to save Mary’s Kitchen has garnered more than 7,000 signatures and state Sen. Dave Min and Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva have come to the defense of the nonprofit. But city officials have not been persuaded.

Orange Mayor Mark Murphy said in an interview at the navigation day that the city has attempted several times to get Mary’s Kitchen to pivot its services to be more of a part of the continuum of care approach, “rather than a feeding location.” He said the kitchen enables homelessness.

“We found this location that worked for a number of years, but like lots of things, times change, demands change, perspectives change,” Murphy said. “What we really want to see for folks that need the help, is to get into what’s called the continuum of care, a comprehensive umbrella of services so that they can change the trajectory of their lives.”

Murphy continued: “Folks come here, they get a meal or two, or even three ... but then they’re still left to their own devices for shelter, for other services along the way. So it’s really enabling rather than providing a continuum of care.”

Murphy also pointed to an increase in crime in the area as a reason for his stance on Mary’s Kitchen.

“My biggest worry at night is that somebody is harmed worse than what has already happened between now and the time they leave,” Murphy said.

Councilwoman Arianna Barrios echoed Murphy’s comments on Mary’s Kitchen regarding the continuum of care.

“I want to be clear that it’s not that we don’t think there’s a need for the services they provide,” Barrios said. “It’s not that we don’t think they’re amazing, I mean they are quintessential Orange charity — see a need, fill a need and roll up your sleeves and get it done.

“But what we’ve seen over the last several years is just an inability to meet the new reality of how we know is the best way to deal with people who are unhoused and people who are in mental health crises. It’s really about this continuum of care, getting people into services and finding the way to help them navigate that.”

Brooke Weitzman, an attorney representing Mary’s Kitchen against the city, said that the city and police seem to be unfairly blaming Mary’s Kitchen for crimes that are being committed on the street where the nonprofit is located, rather than solely the calls for service within the nonprofit’s walls.

“They seem to be defining Mary’s Kitchen area as the street, the police department and the industrial area,” she said.

Craig Lasky and America Sanchez ride a bike at Mary's Kitchen in Orange.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Weitzman pointed out that Mary’s Kitchen works with a professional security company. Security vehicles are present and a guard keeps track of whoever enters the nonprofit’s grounds, she said.

“That might be at the core of the issue is that Mary’s Kitchen truly believes they’ve done everything the city has asked regardless of the cost upon Mary’s Kitchen, and the city believes they haven’t,” Weitzman said. “None of us have been able to figure out what it is that’s missing with any specificity that would allow us to meet it.”

Mary’s Kitchen complied with requests from the city in the past to install security cameras and hire the security guard. Gloria Suess, who leads the nonprofit, said that it has a navigator to help connect homeless people to services.

Weitzman also took umbrage with city officials claiming that Mary’s Kitchen doesn’t have a role to play in the continuum of care.

“The city doesn’t have any role in the continuum of care,” Weitzman said. “It would be great if the city would get participants in the continuum of care to come and enroll people in housing, the way that the other cities do.”

She also said that the city hasn’t provided resources to adequately care for many homeless adults who don’t already fit into the criteria of homeless service providers in the city. She said the city houses the Be Well OC mental health facility, but people can’t just walk in — they have to qualify and have a mental health crisis. That facility also houses a family shelter.

“It’s great that Orange decided to house those, but those are not facilities for adults who are without a home, who don’t have kids, who need basic needs met,” Weitzman said. “So anything the city is willing to do to start providing outreach and start providing a vehicle to get into the continuum of care and to partner with Mary’s or do it on its own, would be an amazing step forward for a city that currently has nothing but Mary’s Kitchen.”

Several service providers participated in the city’s event on Wednesday morning, including CalOptima, Buena Park and Placentia navigation centers, the Orange County Health Care Agency, HomeAid and the police department’s homeless outreach team. The city blocked off the street in front of Mary’s Kitchen, and service providers set up tents. Mary’s Kitchen is located at the end of a cul-de-sac surrounded by industrial buildings and the police department.

The first public report by the Office of Independent Review states the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s use of force policies lack clarity and that deputies are filing late or incomplete force reports, and training instructors have spread bias and endorsed violence.

Not many homeless people attended the event that morning. Most stayed within the walls of Mary’s Kitchen, though Suess announced that there were services outside. Starla Acosta, who has been coming to Mary’s Kitchen for about five years, said it’s because of “lack of trust” with the city.

“People always promise them things,” Suess said.

Weitzman said that Orange has never before provided services in front of Mary’s Kitchen like the navigation event. The event blocked off the end of the cul-de-sac where the nonprofit is located, preventing homeless people from parking their cars, she said.

“It would be maybe better if the city could provide services in a way that didn’t block the participants from getting in, since there is limited parking and a lot of folks who come here have disabilities,” Weitzman said.

Weitzman suggested that homeless people at Mary’s Kitchen may have been less inclined to visit the navigation event due to the police presence.

“This maybe wasn’t the best structure for the services they decided to bring,” Weitzman said.

State Sen. Dave Min, left, speaks with Ray Hernandez during a tour of Mary's Kitchen.
State Sen. Dave Min, left, speaks with client and volunteer Ray Hernandez during a tour of Mary’s Kitchen.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Weitzman said Mary’s Kitchen may take legal action if the city doesn’t rescind its lease termination.

“My position on the legal issues hasn’t changed, that they would be violating state and federal laws if they proceeded, and that we’ll take any actions that we need to hold them accountable to comply with those laws,” Weitzman said.

Weitzman stated her legal position on the premature lease termination in a July 9 letter to the city, asking Orange to rescind its demand letter because it doesn’t have a substantive reason for ending the lease agreement.

“The notice fails to meet both substantive and procedural standards for early termination of agreement,” Weitzman wrote of the city’s letter. “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 impacted as homeless 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 the city 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 notes 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.”

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