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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Judge checks up on services for homeless near Mary’s Kitchen after city takes over

Trekking through the shaded canopies and trailers offering services along West Struck Avenue in Orange on Saturday, May 21, US District Judge David O. Carter often broke away from the guided excursion to chat up someone eating a meal or walking by.

Was the food they’d been served any good? And where were they sleeping tonight?

A month after the city and Mary’s Kitchen came to an agreement in a federal lawsuit detailing how the city would replace vital services offered by the soup kitchen while the nonprofit prepares to leave the city-owned property, Carter had come to see the setup for himself .

During the more than two hour visit to the cul-de-sac, where nonprofit leaders and city officials outlined the resources they are now providing to the area’s hungry and homeless, Carter toured every facility lined up on the street: Portable trailers housing restrooms, showers, laundry facilities and a small office from which employees running the operation.

He greeted volunteers with a warm smile and thanked them for their help.

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Carter appeared pleased with the facilities city officials, working with Orange County nonprofit The Hub, have brought to the street, admitting that he’d even sent “spies” over to check on operations earlier this week and they reported “good things.”

“This is almost a navigation center,” he said as officials with The Hub walked him through the available services such as access to pet care, telephones and mail.

At a hearing on Tuesday, May 24, he’ll say whether he’s satisfied with what he saw.

The agreement signed last month by Orange Mayor Mark Murphy and Mary’s Kitchen CEO Gloria Suess was reached as an injunction preventing the city from evicting the nonprofit from the city-owned site where it has operated for decades was coming to an end. The nonprofit sued the city last year, after Suess was given notice in June that Orange officials planned to terminate the license agreement that allowed the nonprofit to use the city’s property.

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Carter granted a preliminary injunction that stopped the soup kitchen’s eviction, writing in the Nov. 2 decision that the city’s homeless residents would face “substantial risks to their health and their ability to obtain food and mail,” if the nonprofit’s services were not adequately replaced.

The agreement reached April 21 says city officials need to provide for at least a year hot meals, laundry, showers and mail services, among other resources comparable to the ones Mary’s Kitchen has provided for decades. Mary’s Kitchen agreed to end its services by June 10, so long as Carter decides he’s satisfied with the services offered by the city.

At the site Saturday, he asked Murphy to seek help from county officials to explore the possibility of creating a “mini navigation center” out of the services offered there now and with the help of Wound Walk, a nonprofit medical services provider that works with the homeless.

Wound Walk CEO Michael Sean Wright ended an agreement with Mary’s Kitchen in February over what he said were safety concerns, but he said Saturday he was open to working with the city to help people get connected to detox services and housing navigation, and stabilize their healthcare .

While Carter acknowledged the operation of a navigation center doesn’t typically fall on individual cities, and it’s not something Orange officials agreed to in the settlement with Suess, he said it would be mutually beneficial for the city and those without shelter.

Brooke Weitzman, an attorney representing Mary’s Kitchen, said after Saturday’s visit there are still some shortcomings among the services she saw offered by the city, such the showers running at half capacity and lacking hygiene supplies, including feminine products, razors and toothbrushes.

She said she is “confident” the city can get the site fully functional and provide the services it agreed to – “the question is just whether it will before court on Tuesday, and if not, what will the judge do about that in terms of how the timeline plays out.”

Murphy noted that the showers and laundry would soon be running at higher capacity once the facilities are connected to the sewer line.

Officials “put a lot of care and investment” into the services, he said.

“We made certain that they exceeded what was being delivered before,” Murphy said. “And we learned a couple things along the way that we’re remedying.”

Kimberley Shagena, 56, who has been visiting Mary’s Kitchen daily for about two-and-a-half years, at breakfast under the city’s tent and used the portable showers on Saturday. She noted that once the city fixes the water issue, there will be more space available for people to get cleaned up than Mary’s Kitchen has now.

Still, she’ll miss the “safe haven” feel that Mary’s Kitchen provides, where couches offer a place to rest and the friends people make feel like “family,” she said.

“I don’t know how they’re going to find that on the streets,” she said, “because there’s nothing there to fill that void.”

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