After a prolonged see-saw battle challenging its hastily terminated lease by the City of Orange, Mary’s Kitchen, the last walkup center for hundreds of the county’s street homeless, was forced to close its gates on June 10 ceasing its almost 30-year run of service to the most desperate of the county’s unhoused. An eviction battle the City of Orange thought it could wrap up in 90 days played out in federal court and on the streets of Orange for over 6 months with all the drama, and farce, of a Greek tragedy.
It was just in 2019 that the City of Orange renewed its decades old lease to its only homeless day shelter and food distribution hub on Struck Avenue based on city staff’s own recommendations proclaiming Mary’s Kitchen “well organized . . . efficiently run. . . .and its patrons . . . behaved and orderly.”
A year later the city was bashing the same homeless service center as “poorly managed and out of control,” an “attractive nuisance” that enables alcohol and drug use as well as “criminal activity.” Utilizing its own city council platforms city officials exaggerated and misrepresented homeless patrons as a largely unsupervised criminal element, denigrating its staff, and essentially blaming Mary’s Kitchen for its own demise. Finally, the council voted in closed session and without public discussion to suddenly terminate Mary’s Kitchen on June 18, 2021, giving them 30, then 90 days to vacate the property with almost 3 years still left on the lease. Only a last-minute emergency stay by Federal Judge David O. Carter, who was mediating the case, extended the eviction stay order to 6-months.
Judge Carter, seeing no urgency to close the Mary’s Kitchen, and fearing “irreparable harm” to its homeless patrons, presented police logs showing violent offenses and property crime statistics in the city and around Struck Avenue were in fact down. So, what was the city’s rush to terminate Mary’s Kitchen?
The real urgency to evict appears to have been driven by the city’s undisclosed support for a proposed massive truck depot operated by the transport logistics and commercial real estate mega-company Prologis on the property right next door to the Kitchen. The City of Orange took the lead in fast-tracking the secretive project through 2020-21 with something called an Initial Study/Mitigated Negative Declaration, quietly expediting the approval process of a 53,000 sf, 84-bay truck docking depot and warehouse servicing over 300 heavy truck trips a day, with an MND document boldly declaring “no significant impacts” on neighboring businesses up and down Struck Avenue from the proposed development. Mary’s Kitchen would certainly have been a glaring exception to such a declaration. So, it had to go.
The city’s Initial Study/MND did not even refer to Mary’s Kitchen on its list of potentially impacted businesses referred to as sensitive receptors ( page 3-18) even though it was “Zero feet away” from the Prologis property and very much still in operation as was pointed out by attorneys for Mary’s Kitchen. As if it was already gone.
Gone is what the City of Orange desperately needed Mary’s Kitchen to be by the fall of 2021, when its Mitigated Negative Declaration went public, claiming no significant impacts on any of Prologis’ neighbors, in order to justify approval of the massive trucking depot without having to initiate a full Environmental Impact Report, which would surely reveal the incompatibility of an operating food kitchen serving 200 walk up patrons a day next door to a busy truck transport hub if Mary’s Kitchen were included into the calculations.
So, Mary’s was simply left off the city Initial Study’s list of potential impacted businesses in its Initial Study/MND, revealing the city’s intent all along to do away with Mary’s Kitchen early on to make way for Prologis’ trucks, ASAP. Judge Carter’s stay order, however, put the brakes on that urgent timeline, forcing the city to require an EIR on Prologis in the end. But it would not save Mary’s Kitchen for long.
That 6-month reprieve ran out on Friday June 10. On that last day Mary’s Kitchen CEO Gloria Suess personally greeted many of the daily patrons with a hug and a “thank you for coming,” reminding them this would be the last day she would greet them at these gates. Exhausting all attempts thus far to find a suitable commercial property to relocate her operations, Gloria had no choice but to serve her last hot meal without being able to tell some 200 gathered patrons at the usual lunchtime prayer where or when Mary’s Kitchen would next be able to feed them, cloth them, bath or shelter them, obliged for now to refer them to the City of Orange’s alternate services set up just outside the gates down Struck Avenue at the insistence of Judge Carter.
With Carter mediating the closure of Mary’s Kitchen and the transition to city services, those curbside city services, mandated to duplicate Mary’s are, by most homeless accounts so far, a pale comparison. The mostly grab ‘n go box meals, most said, do not compare to Mary’s fresh hot meals prepared on the spot. Portable shower facilities on the street are cramped and limited in time. Toiletries and so called “walk away supplies” are inadequate and often out of stock, with proof of residency in Orange often required to access many services beyond basic hygiene.
But the main reason most of the homeless said they tended to bypass city services on the way to Mary’s Kitchen had more to do with community than comforts. “Home” is how long-time homeless person Tammy described Mary’s Kitchen, “They treated you like family . . .a safe haven. It was a good thing for a lot of us when they crossed those gates, we felt supported, listened to . . . protected.”
At present the city’s services out on Struck Avenue at peak lunch hour attract a fraction of the 150-200 daily homeless patrons of Mary’s. It is possible that in the days to come, under Carter’s close monitoring, city services could improve, but the homeless themselves say the City of Orange will never match the real success stories that come from the truly caring environment that was Mary’s Kitchen, elevating countless homeless patrons who passed through Mary’s gates to rise above their conditions to become self-reliant, as attested to by the hundreds of letters Gloria has saved over the years, and often reads aloud to new recruits, letters from former homeless thanking her and her staff of volunteers for believing in them when no one else would.
These grateful letter writers are just a fraction of the countless unsung stories of the homeless who came through Mary’s gates ragged, harassed by law enforcement, belittled in their own hometowns, lacking in the basic human need for sleep, nutrition, and companionship, they found in Mary’s Kitchen a safe place to simply rest, to resuscitate, to find the courage to dream again of a better life, protected by Gloria and all her caring volunteers along the way who rallied to raise them up out of their own personal hells with loving patients and a hot meal, until they were whole enough to take their lives into their own hands. As the Kitchen’s namesake Mary McAnena used to say, “until they can carry themselves.”
The City of Orange has severed that fragile lifeline and carelessly dislodged a key steppingstone to recovery for countless vulnerable homeless now exposed full time to the viscous cycle of the street. Some will be swept up into a pipeline of further traumatizing mass institutionalization. More yet will die on the streets. Few will see recovery and redemption on this city’s watch, one of the few large OC cities which has consistently resisted opening any permanent emergency shelter of its own for its street homeless.
For her part, Gloria assures us Mary’s Kitchen will rise again, most likely in some other town to continue the work, limited in scope at first, probably food distribution only, no hot meals fresh to the table, no walk up services initially. But. . . “We will survive,” Gloria told me on the last day. “God has his plan and He’s in charge. . . .We have been at this for a long time. . . .it may not be in Orange . . . but somewhere we will continue as Mary’s Kitchen.” It will be City of Orange’s loss.
The City of Orange, which has made the tragic mistake of putting profits and trucks ahead of people and compassion, is now saddled with a nearly half a million-dollar homeless services sideshow out on Struck Avenue, services Mary’s Kitchen provided more efficiently and at no direct cost to the city for years. Mary’s volunteers have done so with patience and compassion in Orange allowing many to rise above their personal tragedies to survive another day, and then another, drawing strength and hope within the sanctuary of its gates, until they could secure a life for themselves on their own. Gloria says Mary’s Kitchen has been a lifeline for hundreds of homeless who eventually made it off the streets for every one that fell into despair, and showed me a drawer full of thank you letters attesting to it.
Mary’s Kitchen is now scrambling to relocate and regroup elsewhere without any assistance from the City of Orange whatsoever, or Prologis who benefit directly from the Kitchen’s elimination. Meanwhile, the City (and its service contractor The Hub) will continue to present a showcase of services on Struck Avenue for a while per its contractual agreement, or maybe for just as long as Judge Carter is watching. No one knows better than the homeless that it’s all part of the show. Mary’s Kitchen was their only constant. And long after the city has packed up its traveling circus of mobile services the homeless will still be there on the streets, most likely in even greater numbers, only now with one less loving hand reaching out to them.
As the last homeless man slowly walked out the gates of Mary’s Kitchen at 3pm on Friday June 10th, with his last meal in hand, a free sleeping bag and hygiene kits dangling from his arms, he turned slowly around to Gloria and a few volunteers standing at the gates, and said “thank you” to Gloria, “thank you Mary’s Kitchen,” and “thank you volunteers.” One volunteer then hailed back to him “no, thank YOU,”
I don’t expect the city council of Orange to fathom the meaning of this exchange, but I am sure every person out there at Mary’s gate on the last day, including that last homeless man to exit, understood exactly what the volunteer meant.
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
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