Gloria Seuss had turkeys “going” in a set of small oven roasters Tuesday, preparing her meals-for-homeless establishment of 36 years, Mary’s Kitchen, to once again host Thanksgiving for scores of unhoused people in Orange County.

On Thursday, the City of Orange-based soup kitchen plans to do things a bit differently for the holiday.

This Thanksgiving may be the kitchen’s last.

It’s been nine weeks since a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter gave Mary’s Kitchen until May 1 of next year to vacate the industrial lot it rents from the City of Orange — winning supporters more time to find a new location after city leaders tried to terminate the kitchen’s lease early, before the stipulated term, this year. 

With more volunteers slated to work the holiday than usual, Seuss said the Thanksgiving plan is to serve people at tables as if “in a restaurant,” rather than handing out to-go boxes.

“I think it would be nice for them to eat off of something other than styrofoam,” Seuss said, briefly stepping away from meal-prep duties.

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City officials — now awaiting their new window to evict Mary’s — have argued the kitchen in recent years has done more enabling than helping.

They also say the type of crowd there has shifted from what used to be people with genuine needs to bad actors and shady clientele.

Homeless advocates, who emerged to rally support for the kitchen this year, packing Orange City Council meetings, say the kitchen has only stepped up to fill the gaps left by local officials in making sure homeless people don’t die on the street.

Mary’s Kitchen became a focal point in the years-long debate over how to effectively help the homeless, at a time when — across the region — charitable deeds for those out on the streets came under crackdown by authorities

“Our plan is what it always has been to get people dependent on Mary’s Kitchen into the Continuum of Care, not just to receive the daily care they were receiving at Mary’s Kitchen, but to reclaim their lives and rejoin with society.”

City of Orange spokesperson Paul Sitkoff

Sitkoff said the city routinely directs “the displaced in our city” to north county regional shelter beds,” and that “we also have several nonprofit shelters within our borders.” 

He said the city is also “engaging several nonprofits, including those specializing in food care, to help us to plan for feeding those who won’t be served by Mary’s when they’re no longer operating.”

Sitkoff added the city is “in the process of hiring two more non-sworn employees to be out in the community … it’s not just the area around Mary’s kitchen … to provide on an ongoing basis the services Mary provided but with the caveat they are encouraged to get (services).”

“The thing I can say most emphatically is that anybody who is willing to accept help will get that help,” Sitkoff said.

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

Brooke Weitzman, a leading attorney for homeless people with the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center, put it this way: “Surely, if the city is committed to shutting down the only service provider it has, there will come a time they can do that.”

The city, she noted, is well within its right to not renew the lease with the soup kitchen, but it wasn’t supposed to expire until 2024. 

City officials intended to force the kitchen out last month.

“How is providing people with the most basic access to nutritional food, clean clothes to wear, enabling them? No one wakes up and thinks, ‘I love being homeless because I got to shower at Mary’s Kitchen.’”

Brooke Weitzman, a leading attorney for homeless people with the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center

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The issue has revived the debate around Orange County’s progress — or lack thereof — in solving homelessness across the region. 

In 2019, the County of Orange and homeless advocates settled an 18-month legal battle with an agreement which, Judge Carter said at the time, calls on different regions of the county to make certain there’s a “respective responsibility” for homeless people — rather than “dumping off” homeless people from one area to another.

Yet well into 2021, encampments have continued to spring up around the county, each one reigniting ongoing debates about the use of law enforcement in homeless outreach, the adequacy of services offered by city and county officials trying to remove them, and where the homeless should go if they don’t want shelter. 

Two months after CalTrans forced a camp of homeless people off state agency property just below south Orange County, advocates say many remain out on the streets.

This is after county officials and elected leaders made assurances, in the weeks leading up to the encampment removal on Aug. 27, that those staying on the property located right under the City of San Clemente would get connected with services and support.

More recently, the City of Santa Ana opted to charge $40,000 to El Centro Cultural de México, a community center near downtown, to recover city money spent when officials obtained a court order to move in on an encampment that grew on the center’s property earlier this year.

A woman walks through a homeless encampment at El Centro Cultural De México in Santa Ana on April 13, 2020. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

El Centro had refused to call police on the encampment and instead demanded city officials find better services for the unhoused, while City of Santa Ana officials called on the center to address the trash and safety concerns flowing in from homeowners in the Willard neighborhood. 

Throughout that time, city officials argued that plenty of shelter beds were available in Santa Ana — pointing to the 250-bed regional county shelter on Yale Street, the city’s use of a regional homeless “navigation” center in Fullerton, and a shelter operated by Salvation Army.

Santa Ana’s mayor also voiced opposition to the reopening of the Santa Ana Armory as a cold-weather shelter in a Nov. 16 letter to the county Board of Supervisors, again referring to those shelters within city boundaries. 

“I do oppose the cold weather shelter placement in the City of Santa Ana, as it appears other communities could readily become County partners in sharing this responsibility,” Sarmiento wrote

Yet the city still lacks its own emergency homeless shelter, one it can directly operate, for those out on the streets within the city’s boundaries. 

Efforts to get one online are still ongoing.  .

Seuss, of Mary’s Kitchen, said she hasn’t found a new location for continued operations yet “and we’re still looking at moving somewhere else,” adding “our guests are a little more anxious … People say, ‘I thought you were closed.’ That’s a little disheartening.” 

“If we got the perfect place tomorrow, we’d be out of here, but our goal is to find another suitable place to serve people,” Seuss added. “Right now, this is about the only place.”


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