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Mary’s Kitchen — a longstanding soup kitchen — is fighting efforts by the City of Orange to shut down its operation that also helps clothe and bathe those out on the streets, possibly setting the stage for a legal battle.

Orange officials put the kitchen on notice last month.

[Read: Orange Officials Shutter Longstanding Meals-for-Homeless Establishment, Mary’s Kitchen]

Volunteers at Mary’s Kitchen off Struck Avenue have until Sept. 18 to cease all philanthropic efforts and vacate the public space the city has annually leased out to them for $1 a year, as the city now says it can no longer tolerate an operation it claims has become a public nuisance “enabling” homelessness.

But the kitchen — which has fed, clothed and cleaned homeless people at its current location since 1994 — is pushing back with the help of the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center, both on the city’s claims and the requirement that they leave.

A July 9 legal letter sent to the City of Orange by attorney Brooke Weitzman, an attorney for  homeless people on behalf of the kitchen, lambasted officials’ move.

“In the midst of a global pandemic, as people on our streets dying at twice the rate of 2019, and access to safe food or clean water is limited, we are shocked that without a single public meeting the City of Orange seeks to close the only service within its borders for our most vulnerable residents in violation of the recently renewed lease agreement and the law,” Weitzman wrote.

In the letter, Weitzman argues the recent steps the city took to terminate the kitchen’s agreement with the city — which is to lease a public, industrial-area space off Struck Avenue for $1 a year — was done so “with disregard for the discriminatory impact, the obligations under the (California Environmental Quality Act), the lease agreement, and (the city’s) Housing Element.”

“The City appears to intend to starve unhoused persons of critical resources needed to survive,” the letter states. 

The kitchen is fighting efforts by the City of Orange to shut down its operation. Credit: LUPITA HERRERA, Voice of OC

Orange City Hall spokesperson Paul Sitkoff declined to comment on the letter: “We can’t comment on pending potential litigation.”

All Sitkoff could disclose, he said, was that the city was set to meet with Mary’s Kitchen representatives on Monday. 

In a Monday phone interview, Weitzman had little to say about the looming legal battle for which this letter appears to open the door: “It’s really too soon to tell until we hear back from the city.”

“We certainly hope the City of Orange will try to engage with us and come up with a plan to ensure that if they do want to discontinue or relocate Mary’s Kitchen,” they would do so through a more proper process, Weitzman said. 

She said the firm is representing the kitchen in its objection to the city’s termination of the lease, but the kitchen may also fight the closure through other, ongoing litigation in Weitzman’s separate homelessness lawsuit against the county and its cities over a lack of shelter beds.

In what’s known as the Orange County Catholic Worker case, many of the homeless people who frequent Mary’s Kitchen are also Weitzman’s clients, she said. 

Thus, Weitzman sees a scenario where the challenge to closing Mary’s can play out through informal hearings, or a “dispute resolution process,” in the Catholic Worker case — that Mary’s operations be retained until the court makes a determination that Orange provides enough shelter beds. 

The city currently has none. 

Orange officials’ move to shutter Mary’s Kitchen comes out of what they claim is the public nuisance the kitchen presents. In a previous story, Sitkoff 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 …”

Orange officials’ move to shutter Mary’s Kitchen comes out of what they claim is the public nuisance the kitchen presents. Credit: LUPITA HERRERA, Voice of OC

But Weitzman said the kitchen’s closure could have an effect opposite to one Orange officials may hope for.

Without a place for homeless people to gather, rest, eat, shower, clothe themselves and toss their trash, Weitzman said people will simply do those things elsewhere, in more visible public spaces.

“This move by Orange would actually move more people into their parks,” she said. “For decades and any day, including today, they go there for a safe place to stay out of the public eye — to also be in a safe environment.”

Her letter to the city states: 

“The foreseeable impacts of the displacement of these services include potential increased water and soil contamination from the loss of hygiene facilities; impacts on the parks; and impacts on other public spaces that people will be forced to relocate to.”

It adds: “These are the anticipated results of seizing the only source of food and hygiene in a city without a single adult shelter bed or safe parking spot, much less safe alternatives or life-sustaining services for everyone who relies on Mary’s Kitchen.”

A person walks out with food from Mary’s Kitchen, located off Struck Avenue. Credit: LUPITA HERRERA, Voice of OC

The change in the city’s environment could be so noticeable that Weitzman said Orange’s move to shutter Mary’s triggers an appropriate public hearing process under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires municipalities to conduct environmental impact studies for certain projects, and the city’s Housing Element.

That’s one of a few reasons Weitzman’s letter points out why Orange officials didn’t follow proper processes. 

In a previous story on this issue, Sitkoff told Voice of OC 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.

Sitkoff said part of that strategy is to partner up with shelter providers.

“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.”

Yet Wietzman’s letter says the city doesn’t even permit Mary’s Kitchen to make referrals on its behalf into the shelters in Buena Park or Placentia.

“The City has taken no steps to support Mary’s Kitchen,” the letter reads. “To the contrary, the City has affirmatively frustrated Mary’s Kitchen’s attempts to assist its clients access (to) available services.”

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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