The city of Orange’s decision last month to shut down Mary’s Kitchen, a volunteer organization that has cared for the homeless for decades, has met with adamant pushback from the community.
A group of people—including pastors, attorneys, homeless advocates, volunteers, residents, and formerly homeless individuals—voiced their opposition during a recent Orange City Council meeting.
“When my grandmother started the kitchen in 1984, she was shocked by the sheer amount of poverty that she was seeing in her community,” Peggy McAnena Carrillo said during public comments on July 13. “The power of Mary’s Kitchen goes beyond the incredible cooking. It’s a place for [people] to find basic human needs.”
Mary McAnena, 82, founded Mary’s Kitchen after helping a homeless woman in Hart Park in Orange, California. The soup kitchen now provides breakfast and lunch, as well as showers and laundry facilities, for around 200 homeless individuals a day, according to the organization.
The soup kitchen was founded on Christian principles, “including compassion and respect for human dignity,” its website states.
“As the city of Orange looks to upend Mary’s Kitchen … no one in the city seems to have a good answer for what’s next. Where will they get their next meal?” Carrillo said. “It’s a shameful reflection on our community that the city council’s been utterly devoid of humanity, in this case.”
Prior to the meeting, a number of people gathered in front of city hall, holding up signs that read, “Save Mary’s Kitchen,” “Let Us Feed the Homeless,” “Let Them Stay,” and “Got Compassion?”
“I pray that Mary’s Kitchen survives,” Heidi Zimmermann, founder of Anaheim-based nonprofit Oma’s Angel Foundation, told The Epoch Times. “It’s not about the land on which we serve people. It’s about humans helping other humans who are desperately in need.”
An Eviction Contested
In a notice dated June 18, City Manager Rick Otto announced Orange’s decision to end the city’s agreement with the volunteer-run organization.
“While Mary’s Kitchen should be commended for their sincere passion for helping others, [the operation] only serves to enable homelessness and can no longer be supported by the city,” the letter said.
While the notice asserts that Section 15 of their License Agreement requires 30 days’ notice, the city said they would allow 90 days to vacate the property.
“It’s just really unclear who is driving this decision and why,” Brooke Weitzman, directing attorney at Elder Law and Disability Rights Center told The Epoch Times. “It seems strange that that type of action would be taken without any public meeting of any sort [and] that the city council wouldn’t be a part of that decision. It hasn’t been agendized.”
Weitzman has been retained by Mary’s Kitchen CEO Gloria Suess to represent them in the matter. Weitzman argues that the notice is improper, invalid, and possibly a violation of state law.
In a letter to Otto dated July 9, Weitzman claims the city’s actions indicate a disregard for discriminatory impact, their state obligations as defined by the California Environmental Quality Act, the lease agreement, and Orange’s Housing Element.
“The City attempts to do this in the dark of night [without] even holding a single public meeting,” the letter states. “Mary’s Kitchen cannot and will not be scapegoated and made to bear the weight of the City’s failures.”
Otto didn’t immediately respond to The Epoch Times’ request for comment.
City council members Jon Dumitru and Kathy Tavoularis declined to comment on the matter to The Epoch Times due to the possibility of litigation.
‘Mary’s Kitchen gave me a reason to live’
Out of the two dozen people who spoke out on behalf of Mary’s Kitchen at the July 13 meeting, Michael Sawyer had one of the most compelling stories.
As he compulsively tossed a water bottle from one hand to the other, Sawyer explained how he had fallen on hard times, experienced a nervous breakdown, and wound up in jail. He also suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
“I’ve tried to commit suicide more times than I’ve got fingers and toes,” he told the city council.
During a month and a half stretch of being homeless, Sawyer said he first went to Mary’s Kitchen looking for drugs, but instead, “I found God.”
“Mary’s Kitchen gave me a reason to live,” he said. “You’re closing it down, and I don’t know why. It doesn’t make sense. You put the people on the street [when] they’re finally getting help,” he said, shuffling away from the microphone just as his three-minute window expired.
Bert Steensma described himself as another “one of those criminal guys” whose life was saved by Gloria Suess at Mary’s Kitchen.
“[I] came out of Chino [Institute for Men] in 2017 [and] had nothing—nothing at all,” he said. “Gloria is one of the most precious people I think I’ve ever met.
“Gloria is always there working. And you can tell she’s exhausted sometimes, but she’s always kind. If somebody has a need, she’ll go and take care of it even though she’s tired. And I think the greatest thing though, is their example. People that come out of prison need that example. I needed it.”
Weitzman would like to see the city drop its eviction notice and partner with the organization.
“They are a critical resource and they absolutely save lives,” she said. “They give people dignity, but they don’t have access to get people out of homelessness on their own because they don’t have access to referring to a shelter. The city of Orange doesn’t even have a shelter.”
Though Weitzman hasn’t yet heard back from city officials, she said she remains hopeful that she’ll get a response soon.
“It’s very reasonable that they want to take a few days to read the letter [and] decide if they agree or disagree with the things I’ve said,” she said.