Feeding homeless people can be a dicey endeavor for the charitable in Orange County, as advocates have learned that acts of service — like giving away food — can lead to handcuffs, while a local homeless kitchen now faces friction with public officials over its existence.

It’s an issue that captures ideas of public service, through the lens of a regional homelessness crisis — a debate where officials say free food for the hungry only adds to problems and attracts the wrong crowd, while advocates say they’re stepping up to help the most vulnerable where local leaders have repeatedly failed.

Mohammed Aly, a local attorney and advocate for homeless people, calls it “illogical and counterproductive” when a local government uses “resources to punish the helpers instead of fulfilling their responsibility to provide for people suffering.” 

“Especially at a time of economic uncertainty and devastation by the pandemic,” he said during an interview.

In the City of Orange, Mary’s Kitchen — founded by late Orange philanthropist Mary McAnena — has fed the less fortunate with the help of volunteers at its current spot, located off West Struck Avenue, since 1994 while offering other services like showers and clothing donations.

Orange officials have allowed the place to run out of a parking lot for $1 a year under a city contract, ensconced in an industrial area and away from homes and residential areas. 

The city seemed to tolerate the volunteer operation throughout the years. 

Until now.

City officials this month claim Mary’s Kitchen has increasingly become a public nuisance and criminal attraction.

Word is now going around that the city won’t renew its contract with the kitchen.

That information came from a Voice of OC community Op-Ed by Patrick Hogan, a homeless volunteer at Mary’s, who said the city has been tallying reasons, like garbage in the streets and homeless presence even after the place closes for the day, to end the kitchen’s time in Orange.

His post got much attention and traction on social media. Voice of OC, in turn, asked the city about it.

City spokesperson Paul Sitkoff said he couldn’t discuss whether City Hall wants to renew the contract between Mary’s and the city — only that staff are currently in talks with the kitchen’s leaders, who he said Hogan is not one of, and that some announcement could come roughly in a week. 

However, Sitkoff did say this: 

“We have serious concerns about the type of clientele that Mary’s Kitchen now serves. But more importantly, the city feels there are a number of new resources for our displaced population to avail themselves and get the help they need to re-integrate them back into the general public life.” 

That’s not how Hogan, in his op-ed, sees it:

“To hobble and then chloroform such an irreplaceable haven as Mary’s Kitchen, at a time when homelessness is at crisis levels, coupled with the foot-dragging of the County Board of Supervisors on this issue is a virtual death sentence to the many vulnerable homeless.”

An abandoned tent containing several belongings was found on a private property in San Clemente during a 2019 homeless Point in Time count. Credit: JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

And this month, one San Clemente couple alleged in a federal lawsuit that their Constitutional rights were violated after a park ranger confronted them for handing out food to homeless people at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point in 2018, according to a story first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

The encounter ended with homeless advocate Don Lemly in handcuffs, and fellow advocate and partner Kathy Lemly calling 911 on the park ranger who arrested him, Nicholas Milward, according to the Times. 

The Lemlys’ case ended with a jury rejecting each of their claims this month around excessive force and false arrest.

Defense testimony from Milward and other law enforcement officers laid out what they said were problems with the meals in attracting homeless people to the beach, according to the Times. 

One sheriff’s investigator spent a month watching people who came for the food, and crafted a report for the city of Dana Point that concluded 70% of the 600 or so people served had criminal records, according to the Times.

“The majority of the people that attend … are criminals. Drugs. Domestic violence. Stabbings. Fights,” said Milward in court testimony detailed by the Times. “I knew a lot of them by name and date of birth.”

The couple has been doing this type of charity for over a decade, deeply involved with religious networks and a local church they volunteer at, according to the Times. 

Aly said the recent controversies could put renewed focus on the role of religion and faith in pushing homelessness advocacy through things like free meals, especially when there’s contention with the government. 

“People do have a First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion,” Aly said, adding that includes practicing “corporal works of mercy” through offering food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless.

Such was the case in 2003, when the City of Santa Ana demanded the Orange County Catholic Worker house stop feeding, clothing and housing homeless people on its property, arguing the house was acting as a mission in an area where zoning did not allow it.

More than a dozen lawyers rallied to defend the house, according to a story by the National Catholic Reporter around that time, and filed a federal suit claiming the Catholic Workers’ First Amendment rights were violated through the city’s obstruction of their ability to feed and shelter homeless people. 

“It was my understanding … that the one thing held to be an inherently religious act is serving people food that you yourself have paid for,” said Dwight Smith, director of OC Catholic Worker alongside his wife Leia Smith, in an interview on Friday looking back on the case. 

“We were doing things for purely religious reasons.”

The city, under public pressure, later suspended the violation.

Likewise, Mary’s Kitchen was founded on Christian principles and values, according to the establishment’s website, including work that “feeds, clothes and provides services that support and enhance the quality of life for the hungry and homeless that come to Mary’s Kitchen.”

For decades, Sitkoff said, Mary’s Kitchen served a clientele of families and people looking for a way to change their circumstances. 

Now, he argues, “just based on the calls that our police department is getting on a regular basis, they seem to be more inclined toward substance abusers and people with mental health issues who need much more help than they’re getting in Mary’s Kitchen.” 

He said the police department “responds to calls frequently for violence or altercations between clients in Mary’s Kitchen. As the clientele has changed, those instances have increased dramatically, as well.”

Asked for actual police department data on police calls to the kitchen, Sitkoff referred to the Police Department’s spokesperson, Sgt. Phil McMullin. 

An email request to McMullin for that data on Friday went unreturned.

Sitkoff pointed to regional homeless shelters in North County, known by local officials as “navigation centers,” that members of Orange’s homeless population could go to. That is, if they can get a referral from a social worker or police officer.

He also pointed to a new mental health hospital in the city run by nonprofit Be Well OC. 

The campus — which opened in January — offers short term care for people experiencing acute mental health crises, as well as a place to treat substance abuse disorders, according to Be Well OC’s website, to which local cities could refer some members of the homeless population living with these issues.

The nonprofit most recently contracted with the City of Garden Grove to handle non-emergency 9-1-1 calls about brewing mental health and homelessness crises, rather than having police do it. The idea is that workers with Be Well OC would be able to refer people they respond to, to some of those services at the new campus.

The City of Santa Ana, seen as an epicenter of the regional crisis as the city is the county seat of government, is also sniffing around the idea, announcing earlier this month that officials there planned on touring the campus. 

Sitkoff said “there are a myriad of options that our displaced population can make use of to get the assistance they need to get through in life.”

“Homelessness and displaced persons, it’s a countywide problem … we are trying to tackle it in a countywide way,” Sitkoff said. “Our concern is always the health and safety of our residents and businesses.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord

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