It all seemed to be going so well in the summer of 2019. Mary’s Kitchen, a daily provider of hot meals to the walk-up homeless of Orange, had just renewed its fourth 5-year license agreement with its property owners, the City of Orange, including a glowing review of the facility by city staff recommending renewal of Mary’s Kitchen’s license through 2024.

“The program is well organized and efficiently run. Everyone seems to know their role, and the volunteers are very dedicated,” Community Services Director Bonnie Hagan’s staff report read. “The facility is impressively neat and clean . . . . and the patrons, for the most part, are behaved and orderly, and very appreciative of services,” and added,  “MK works closely with the police department to best manage the public area (outside the gates).”

But somewhere in 2020 that Indian Summer of peace and tranquility between Mary’s Kitchen and the City of Orange would suddenly turn into a winter of discontent on the part of the same city officials who had previously praised the homeless pantry, declaring an unfolding crisis of criminality outside Mary’s gates Orange PD could no longer control.

They then turned up the heat inside Mary’s Kitchen, with a barrage of verbal assaults from certain council members on its operations, even impugning the character of the kitchen’s CEO Gloria Suess,  creating a perception of Mary’s Kitchen as “an attractive nuisance” leading up to the final blow, a termination notice dated June 18 to “surrender the property” within 90 days.

Stunned MK staff, supporters and other non-profits who utilize Mary’s Kitchen to serve the unhoused and the hungry have been left to speculate what exactly is the trouble with Mary’s Kitchen that the city would choose to suddenly uproot and dislocate its only daily operating charitable food service without adequate notice or time to relocate?

Despite the heated rhetoric from the council daily operations inside Mary’s continued largely peacefully and orderly as usual. Speculation swirled around the possibility adjacent property developments might pose conflicts with Mary’s. But except for occasional council member rants, no constructive dialogue from the city was forthcoming. In fact, it has conducted exactly zero public meetings on the subject, before or since the termination notice.

City spokesman Paul Sitkoff told me recently the city has no designs on the MK property itself and knows of no development plans in discussion or in the pipeline on Struck Avenue that might conflict with Mary’s presence there.

The property (site) just to the south of Mary’s Kitchen is owned by Prologis.

However, a deeper dive into City of Orange Planning and Zoning Department activities reveals a different picture. The property just to the South of Mary’s is now owned by one of the largest overland freight and logistics companies in the U.S.-Prologis. And though it appears presently inactive, city documents show the owner does indeed have plans for that property that are, in fact, way past the discussion stage with the city.

The City has been working with Prologis since 2020 to study and adopt something called a Mitigated Negative Declaration allowing the developer to move forward with already drafted plans to demolish the existing industrial building and erect a 58,000 square ft. truck terminal hub with 84 docking doors and 188 outdoor trailer stalls, operating on a 24/7 schedule, generating over 600 heavy truck trips up and down Struck Avenue a day.

City of Orange is identified as the Lead Agency on a recent Notice of Intent to Adopt A Negative Declaration which would allow Prologis to circumvent many of the usual California environmental quality safeguards (CEQA) if findings of “no impact” or “less than substantial impact” are concluded by the city and its consultants. Such categories as potentially harmful air pollution impacts on people in the area, traffic patterns, pedestrian and bicycle safety, disruption of public services and housing are just some of the factors that the city has determined will somehow have “no impact” or “no substantial impact” on neighboring properties with the approval of this truck terminal.

On any given day 200-300 of the unhoused and hungry make their way up Struck Avenue to Mary’s Kitchen by car, by bicycle and on foot for a hot meal, a shower, to recharge their phones or collect important mail and receive aid from one of many nonprofits who service them inside the gates. This is a population that would certainly be adversely “impacted” by an endless stream of heavy truck traffic barreling up Struck Avenue with noxious fumes wafting endlessly onto the open air eating area inside Mary’s. And yet the City of Orange finds “no substantial impacts” to deter the greenlighting of this truck terminal right next door to Mary’s Kitchen.

How could these obviously conflicting enterprises that pit trucks against people possibly coexist side by side?  Mary’s Kitchen is an intensively people-centered service that suddenly finds itself next door to some very valuable real estate about to go viral, and very much in the way of its developer, Prologis and its trucks.

The City of Orange’s solution: remove the people.

Among the standard Mitigated Negative Declaration checklist of questions, the city is asked to identify all properties, businesses and people along West Struck Avenue that might be adversely affected by a truck terminal development. The MND process calls them Sensitive Receptors, and measures many factors of potential harm to businesses, humans and their public interests. Mary’s Kitchen is NOT even on that list.

This page (pg 39 of MND) reveals the City of Orange had no intention of including Mary’s Kitchen in its Mitigated Negative Declaration analysis.

The city simply omitted any mention of Mary’s Kitchen as a proximate business that could be adversely affected by the proposed development, as if it wasn’t even there.

But it is there, and very much in danger of potential impacts from a proposed truck terminal just next door, as legal co-council for Mary’s Kitchen John Given stated in his response to the city, “Mary’s Kitchen is extremely concerned about the significant impacts from the proposed Project on its facility, workers, volunteers, and the many unhoused individuals who receive service there, in particular, due to air quality, noise, vibration, and direct or indirect substantial adverse environmental effects of the Project on human beings … The MND fails to consider Mary’s Kitchen as a sensitive receptor. . . .even though it is closer to the Project site than any of the sensitive receptor locations considered as part of the analysis…  ”

Sometime in 2020 it must have become clear to the city that the impact of a truck terminal on human activity in and around Mary’s Kitchen would be too problematic to “mitigate” in a timely manner on behalf of Prologis. Bad for Prologis because it would complicate and possibly forestall their Project by requiring a full Environmental Impact Report creating further delays. Bad for the City of Orange because it would delay the flow of significant commercial tax assessments back to the city, and possibly even entangle the city in the relocation of Mary’s Kitchen.

Mary’s Kitchen would have to go.

Orange City officials have gone to great lengths recently to amplify a perception of Mary’s Kitchen as suddenly dysfunctional and leaderless, doing their best to ascribe the burden of guilt to the hapless food kitchen itself as a failed service model while concealing its primary motivation- removing Mary’s Kitchen as a potential impediment to its most favored Prologis Project.

But Mary’s Kitchen is not a failed service model. Every day that it keeps its gates open and accepting of the hungry and the unhoused, it succeeds demonstrating that compassion can be more powerful than greed.

Mary’s Kitchen has no intention of going quietly into trash heap of history as the City of Orange had hoped to deliver it.  Gloria Suess says she does not intend to lose one day of service to the homeless. Her transition will be “seamless” she says confidently. “We will move somewhere . . . that is clear. We just need time to find a new home.” And despite everything the city has heaped on her, Gloria the eternal optimist still says, “ I would like to remain in Orange. This is our home. This is where our history is. This is where our patrons are.. . . This is where Mary (McAnena) would want us to be.”

Failing all recent mediation efforts Judge Carter has issued a stay of the City of Orange’s termination order, but only for 6 months. Gloria had asked for 18, to secure a suitable home, relocate there and reestablish a “seamless transition of services.”

Carter himself has expressed concern over the manner of Mary’s relocation. He speaks of “irreparable harm” to people who use Mary’s Kitchen on a daily basis, suddenly displaced from their lifeline of support. He referred to City of Orange’s alternate plan for relocating hundreds of homeless as “Inadequate.” And he said the city needs to devise a better plan, one that would hopefully work with Mary’s Kitchen in its coming relocation.

Instead of seeking first to mitigate the burden on Prologis, its trucks, terminals, timetables and profits, Orange might consider it has one last chance to put people first, its own people, the unhoused who have no chance but the opportunities we offer them, no time but the time we give them.

The City of Orange still has the power to extend those gifts of time and opportunity to Mary’s Kitchen and assist in its “seamless” relocation based on compassion and cooperation, instead of secrecy and coercion. Finding a new home for Mary’s Kitchen where it can continue its mission of redemption for those who live on the edge will ultimately be the best outcome for all, and may even, in the process, redeem the City of Orange itself.

John Underwood is a working reporter and media producer in Orange County with extensive background in Orange County based news and public affairs in print, broadcast and online platforms. Past news organizations he has been affiliated with are National Public Radio, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly and various other OC based news publications. His current documentary series NO FIXED ABODE focuses on channeling the voices of the OC homeless and can be viewed on the website losaltv.org

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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