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Within a matter of weeks or months, a longstanding philanthropic kitchen that feeds homeless people will shutter, after City of Orange officials today sent Mary’s Kitchen a notice that their contract to run on a public lot in an industrial area off Strucker Ave has been terminated.

Gloria Seuss, the current woman in charge of the volunteer-run operation — founded decades ago by late Orange Philanthropist Mary McAnena  — told Voice of OC about the letter on Tuesday. 

City spokesperson Paul Sitkoff confirmed the letter later in the day, and said that while the agreement allows for a 30-day notice, the city is granting Mary’s Kitchen 90 days to leave the premises. 

The kitchen renewed a central debate in Orange County over how to truly help homeless people — and why efforts to feed the less fortunate in recent years has become a focus of government crackdown. 

Orange officials claim Mary’s Kitchen has lately become a criminal attraction — the kitchen’s a short distance away from the Orange Police Dept. headquarters — and that free meals are “day-to-day maintenance” when there are better, longer-term ways to get people help.

Advocates, however, say they’re only stepping up to fill in the gaps left by local leadership in Orange County that’s failed throughout the years to even ensure that local homeless people don’t die on the street. 

Sitkoff said that the city, for nearly four years, has tried to work with Mary’s management and its board of directors to “shift” their operations — “and unfortunately it was to no avail.”

He added: “The fact of the matter is it was just not possible to align them” with the city’s strategy for helping homeless people, which Sitkoff, when asked what that strategy was, said: 

“We tried to get them to bring in partners … so that people who were coming to that facility would also have resources available to shift them to one of the navigation centers (Orange County’s regional homeless shelters) or seek the help they needed to leave that lifestyle behind.”

It’s the same argument the city makes in its letter to the kitchen: 

“Throughout the years, Mary’s Kitchen has a long history of service and has been an excellent community partner with the City of Orange. While Mary’s Kitchen should be commended for their sincere passion for helping others, its operations and its mission … only serves to enable homelessness and can no longer be supported by the city.”

Asked about this claim about her establishment, Seuss remarked over the phone: 

“Are you enabling when you’re taking care of people who are in desperate need of a shower or food or clothing?”

Seuss said the city had asked Mary’s Kitchen to change a number of things about the place, including vetting — or as Seuss put it, “interviewing” — certain patrons to see who they were and what type of crowd they may come from. 

Asked about that, Sitkoff said: 

“I don’t have information on that. I know what we were asking her to do was organize better security on site.”

Sitkoff, in an interview earlier in the day, said “it was the encroachment of (the kitchen’s) patrons onto surrounding properties, the issues with current clientele that replaced their previous users, which unfortunately included lots of activity such as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, relieving themselves in public, littering, theft, vandalism …”

“Everybody was solely going there for the day-to-day maintenance of that way of living. This method of trying to support and uplift our displaced population has, countywide, replaced the old model of maintenance,” Sitkoff said. 

Seuss disputed the notion that Mary’s Kitchen only offered “maintenance” to people’s problems, saying the place offers a host of other services like showers and clothing donations. 

“We got people cleaned up so they can go apply for a job. We also have a program with the Assistance League of Orange that if you have a job and need work boots, we provide work boots for you.”

“We have always done that,” Seuss said, adding that Mary’s Kitchen also regularly refers people to a list of other services and shelters. 

Rumors had been spreading, in the weeks leading up, that this was going to happen. 

Voice of OC began to ask the city what its plans for Mary’s was, and the responses were indefinite, but pointed to displeasure by the city with the type of clientele the kitchen attracted. 

The relationship between the kitchen and city was largely amicable throughout the years — but marked by attempts to make the homeless presence around the volunteer operation less visible to residents. 

The city moved Mary’s to its current spot in the 1990s, leasing a public space to the kitchen for $1 a year in an industrial area tucked away from homes and neighborhoods.

The city’s letter to the kitchen reads: 

“Like you, we too have certainly seen a change in clientele over the last few years, making the site an attractive nuisance, with an increase in crime and calls for service from the Orange Police Dept. As we have expressed many times previously, this increase has created an unreasonable demand on city services that can no longer be sustained.”

“Has our clientele changed?” Suess said, responding to the letter in her interview. “Well, everybody’s clientele has changed.”

“The homeless are not perfect and they throw trash where they shouldn’t, sure,” Suess said, but added that many of the volunteers at the kitchen are homeless themselves. 

The person who first rang the alarm bell that the city was coming for Mary’s, was Patrick Hogan, a homeless man and volunteer at the kitchen who got the word out in a Voice of OC Op-Ed.

Said Suess: “We always had our volunteers, including the homeless, pick up trash in the cul de sac. We have a security guard who watches outside and if there’s a little scuttle in here, he can take care of it — usually we don’t.”

Seuss added that the city’s move lacks an understanding that homeless people aren’t a monolith: 

“They think everybody has to go into shelter — this and that — but there are so many problems that people have. Some of them I talked to about shelters, they say they just can’t be in a shelter,” she said. “The city’s idea is, well, tough, they’re just gonna have to learn to be in a shelter.”

Seuss added that the kitchen signed their latest agreement in 2019, and the contract still had some time left on it. 

“This was for a reason.”

The city’s letter to Mary’s mentions a new affordable housing project scheduled to spring up nearby. Sitkoff said “it’s a low-income housing project and had Mary’s been able to implement the adjustments we were trying to get them to make, it would have been able to stay.”

Seuss worries what will happen to the local homeless population if the kitchen isn’t around: 

“Where are they going to go to shower? To use the bathroom? To get food and clothing and just to have a place where they can be between 9 and 3 without being afraid that something will happen to them?”

Sitkoff said the city will try to help Mary’s Kitchen figure out how to meet the 90-day deadline to leave: “We’re going to work closely with them to make sure they meet the deadline — we do not plan to leave them cast off and figuring out how to meet that deadline.”

Seuss said the kitchen will try to fight the city’s efforts to kick them out, but wonders whether there’s somewhere else the kitchen could go if they do end up having to leave. 

She said she’s open to suggestions.

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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