For Derek King and many like him, Mary’s Kitchen is a sanctuary.
King, who has been homeless for almost a decade, found Mary’s Kitchen in Orange at a time when he had reached his limits. Malnourished physically and spiritually, he was ready to give up.
Mary’s Kitchen provided her with food, a shower and clothes. It helped restore something that many homeless people had to give up when they lived on the streets: dignity.
He found a new meaning in the relationships he established and the spirituality fostered by the leadership of the association.
“There are times when the fear of living for nothing strangles you,” King said in an interview this week with Mary’s Kitchen.
King’s story is not uncommon.
Charles Cousert hadn’t eaten in days before finding Mary’s Kitchen, where he was given food and clothing.
He said he would have died if it hadn’t been for the association.
“This place is literally a blessing,” Cousert said. “It’s a sanctuary.
Homeless people who rely on Mary’s Kitchen said it was the only place they could find whatever they needed. Led by Gloria Suess, the association offers three meals, six days a week, to anyone who requests them. Showers and laundry facilities are also available, and the association receives mail for hundreds of customers.
After speaking with over half a dozen homeless people this week, it’s clear anyone can approach Suess with a problem they’re having and she’ll try to fix it.
During a visit to the association this week, Michael Lohse, accompanied by his dog Mildred, approached Suess and thanked her for helping him pay for the late registration of his car. Like other visitors to the site, Lohse, a victim of three strokes, has had a hard time. He said the nonprofit gave him $ 440 for the $ 1,300 he needed so he could drive again.
“Whatever you need, you’ll get it from Gloria,” said Patrick Hogan, volunteer at Mary’s Kitchen.
But after the city sent a letter of formal notice last month ending the association’s lease, the homeless 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 formal notice terminating its lease three years earlier. The city is giving the association until September 18 to vacate the property and they’ve asked Mary’s Kitchen to provide the city with a move plan within two weeks.
The letter from the city, signed by City Manager Rick Otto, indicates that the city has been a leader in Orange County in supporting the efforts of the homeless. However, Mary’s Kitchen is the only homeless service provider listed in the city’s housing component.
Marie’s kitchen has been operating in Orange since the mid-1980s, and at its current location at 517 W. Struck Ave., since 1994. Mary’s Kitchen is a humble, non-profit organization run by donations and volunteers, some of whom are themselves even homeless.
While Otto’s letter praises Mary’s Kitchen, it goes on to state that the association’s actions only serve to “enable roaming and can no longer be supported by the city.”
The letter says there has been an increase in crime and police calls from Mary’s Kitchen. The city says this has created an “unreasonable demand for municipal services.”
The letter also states that the city recently approved an affordable housing project nearby, which is “incompatible” with Mary’s Kitchen, which is located at the end of an industrial dead end. An Orange Police Department headquarters is across the street. There are no houses on the street.
Suess, the association’s president and CEO, said in a phone interview that Mary’s Kitchen had already complied with city requests to install security cameras and a security guard.
“Whatever they asked us to do, we did it,” Suess said.
Suess said the city does not want Mary’s Kitchen to serve people who are not from Orange, but that is inconsistent with the nonprofit’s mission to serve all who are hungry.
“We don’t judge who deserves food or not,” Suess said. “We take care of those who really need help.
“… I don’t think Orange understands, all these people who have considered Mary their home for all these years, where are they going to go?” Where do they get their mail from? Where are they going to shower? Where are they going to eat?
Mary’s Kitchen and some members of the community back off.
The association hired lawyer Brooke Weitzman, who sent a letter to the city on July 9 saying the city’s notice did not include a substantial reason for prematurely terminating a rental agreement. He asks the city to cancel his letter.
“The notice does not meet substantive and procedural standards for early termination of the agreement,” the letter said. “The only reference to the lease in the notice indicates that the City can terminate the agreement, but it does not specify any reason supported by the terms of the agreement.
“Despite the recognition of the critical support Mary’s has received over the years, the letter draws baseless conclusions that are simply not supported by the facts, in effect blaming Mary’s Kitchen for the city’s failure to resolve the crisis. housing, the health care needs of its poorest residents, and everything and all other issues in the public space outside of Mary’s Kitchen property. Certainly nothing in the lease places the onus on Mary’s Kitchen to address the City’s failures to meet the needs of low-income and homeless people.
Weitzman’s letter also calls on the city to determine the environmental impact of closing Mary’s Kitchen in order to comply with California’s Environmental Quality Act.
The letter says water and soil may be contaminated by the loss of hygiene facilities at Mary’s Kitchen and other public spaces could be affected as homeless people are forced to move.
“The immediate shutdown of a service provider leaving around 150-200 people a day without this safe place to sit, receive meals to eat and clothes to wear, access mail, access hygiene facilities, use a laundromat and more will inevitably have an impact on the environment, ”the letter said.
Weitzman also argues that the lease termination violates the city’s housing element, which requires the city to take into account the homeless, low-income people, the elderly and people with disabilities – all of whom frequent Mary’s Kitchen. Weitzman notes in the letter that Mary’s Kitchen is the only homeless service 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 anticipated needs of all economic segments of its community, including its homeless population.”
Orange City spokesman Paul Sitkoff said in an email he could not comment on the closure of Mary’s Kitchen due to a possible ongoing litigation.
Weitzman said on the phone that she wondered who in town was leading the effort to shut down Mary’s Kitchen after decades of existence.
“There was no public meeting, so I know the letter is from the city manager, but who is it? Said Weitzman. “This sort of thing would normally be a decision of city council, especially given the long history of community service. It is not clear because there has been no public involvement.
Mary’s Kitchen is currently collecting signatures from supporters to show the city how crucial it is to the community. Suess said she wanted a few thousand signatures before sending them to the city.
The community also supports the association. Several members of the public showed up at a city council meeting on Tuesday night to criticize the city and express 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 statistics on Mary’s Kitchen, despite its allegations of increased crime in the area. The city called the association a “nuisance” in its letter, but there was no sign of it during a visit to Mary’s Kitchen this week.
Dozens of people had lunch and chatted among themselves. Some slept in the shade.
Everything fell silent as Suess recited a prayer through a megaphone. Many stood up and some took off their hats.
“Send blessings to Mary’s Kitchen,” Suess said.
“Amen,” they said.
For those who meet regularly at the shrine, losing Mary’s Kitchen is more than losing access to food and possessions. The camaraderie and support from Suess, volunteers and others 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 lived in her car for about five years, the same time she comes to Mary’s Kitchen.
Acosta met his close friend Ron at Mary’s Kitchen. She calls him her little brother.
Ron, who declined to give her last name, said Mary’s Kitchen helps all kinds of people. For many, it helps support them as they go through a difficult time in life.
Since Ron was injured at work two years ago, he’s been a regular visitor to Mary’s Kitchen. He has a job now, but he keeps coming to see his friends.
Ron said he couldn’t sleep the night he heard about the potential closure of Mary’s Kitchen.
“It would be a tragedy,” he said.
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