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Housing and Homelessness

Orange County Homelessness Organization Fighting To Keep Its Home

A homeless encampment on the side of the road.
Officials tour the homeless encampment beside the Santa Ana River in 2018.
(Chava Sanchez
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For nearly 30 years, the nonprofit Mary's Kitchen has provided meals, showers, and other services for the unhoused from a city-owned building in Orange. Now the city wants the group out, saying its operation is enabling homelessness.

On Monday, lawyers for the volunteer-run organization sent the city a letter challenging the decision to terminate the group's lease.

Mary's Kitchen has operated from a property on West Struck Avenue since 1994, and agreed to a five-year extension of its lease in 2019.

Despite this, a few weeks ago the group was given notice to leave by September.

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Forcing the nonprofit to leave would mean the city wouldn't be in compliance with its own mandate to provide services for the unhoused, said attorney Brooke Weitzman, who is representing Mary's Kitchen.

"They would be left with no choice but to scatter to public parks, to seek out public restrooms, to shower in public places, to not get their mail — therefore not get their benefits and not be able to maintain their work or their connections with case managers that are working on their housing," said Weitzman, who is directing attorney of the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center.

'Day-To-Day Maintenance Of That Way Of Living'

A city spokesperson declined to comment on Mary's Kitchen's letter, but spokesperson Paul Sitkoff told the Voice of OC last monththat the city tried unsuccessfully for four years to get the nonprofit to "shift" its operations so they would "align" with the city's homelessness strategy.

“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,” he told the news site.

“Everybody was solely going there for the day-to-day maintenance of that way of living," Sitkoff said. "This method of trying to support and uplift our displaced population has, countywide, replaced the old model of maintenance."

He also said Mary's Kitchen patrons have been going onto nearby properties and engaging in drug and alcohol abuse, theft and vandalism.

In its letter last month to Mary's Kitchen the city said: "While Mary’s Kitchen should be commended for their sincere passion for helping others, its operations and its mission … only serves to enable homelessness and can no longer be supported by the city," the Voice of OC reported.

Weitzman said Orange did not hold any public meetings to discuss the matter, which she claimed is a violation of state law.