A federal judge in Santa Ana Thursday urged city of Orange officials to work with operators of Mary’s Kitchen to help the homeless services provider find a new home instead of trying to evicting it from a city lot.
If a compromise cannot be worked out, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter said he would rule within a week or so on a preliminary injunction that would bar the city from evicting Mary’s Kitchen right away. Carter issued a temporary restraining order Sept. 17, halting an eviction with a day to spare.
Attorney Seymour Everett, who represents the city, assured Carter that officials in Orange were eager to work out a settlement with Mary’s Kitchen.
“We want to work with them on a transition that doesn’t leave a void” in services for local transients, Everett told Carter.
Everett said city officials were ready to work out a deal in June, but “it fell apart when the lawyers got involved.”
Carol Sobel, one of the attorneys for Mary’s Kitchen, said her client never received any sort of plan from the city.
The judge implored both sides to come up with a plan for a “humane transition.”
He said he could find that the city of Orange has a clause in its lease agreement with Mary’s Kitchen that would allow for immediate eviction based on various factors. Mary’s Kitchen has a lease through June 2024.
The city approved its last lease agreement in June 2019.
The city’s attorneys said officials had raised issues with crime associated with Mary’s Kitchen when it approved the agreement in 2019. There were 13 violent crimes around Mary’s Kitchen that year, but only two this year, according to officials at Thursday’s hearing.
But the city’s attorneys said calls for service at the location, which is a few blocks from the city’s police station, had gone up by 500%.
Mary’s Shelter set up 16 surveillance cameras and started with volunteer security, but then hired a professional firm.
Sobel said the nonprofit serves 250 to 300 clients and is a unique homeless services provider regionally in that it provides three hot meals a day six days a week, showers, mail pick-up service, medical care, laundry and even a change of clothes or a stay at a motel to help some transients into permanent housing.
There are 10 food pantries in Orange, two places where transients can get a meal at least once a week and one for seniors that provides meals six days a week. But Sobel said frozen meals are not appropriate for many transients who have no place to defrost or cook them.
Sobel said it could take up to 18 months to acquire private property and move Mary’s Kitchen’s property there.
Mary’s Kitchen has operated in the city for nearly 36 years, starting in 1986. Its agreement with the city to use its property started in 1993 and has been renewed several times over the years.
The city sent a notice of violation of the agreement with Mary’s Kitchen in September 2020. The notice alleged violations such as “lodging on private property, causing traffic congestion, damage to city property, trespassing and drug and alcohol use.” The notice also alleged loitering through the night and officials requested the hiring of private security.
City officials said then that Mary’s Kitchen “only serves to enable homelessness and can no longer be supported by the city.”
An approved affordable housing project next door made Mary’s Kitchen “incompatible,” according to the city. Mary’s Kitchen was scheduled to get out of the space by Sept. 18.
Carter ruled in his temporary restraining order that the city denied due process for Mary’s Kitchen. He also noted that Mary’s Kitchen over the years “has invested substantial resources in its current location over several decades, including physical infrastructure that cannot be moved.”
Eviction would cause Mary’s Kitchen to lose its location and “tens of thousands of dollars of infrastructure investments,” Carter said.
The transients who rely on Mary’s Kitchen would also lose valuable services and that, “These dangers are compounded as the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” he said.
Carter rejected the city’s argument that it provides similar and enhanced services and said he “is not certain that said resources currently exist and would in fact offset the harm that would arise from closing Mary’s Kitchen.”
City officials argued that other shelters in northern Orange County in nearby cities are sufficient to meet the need. But Carter said Mary’s Kitchen clients are regularly transported from those shelters to Orange to receive services not provided at those other shelters.
The city argued that it has 160 beds available with a future project to build 64 new housing units, but Mary’s Kitchen serves about 300 clients in its location at 517 W. Struck Ave., Carter noted.
The damage to Mary’s Kitchen by shutting it down would be “substantial and irreparable,” but the harm to the city would be “minor,” Carter said in his TRO. Shutting it down “would further strain already-burdened city services by spreading unhoused individuals throughout the city and county, making delivery of targeted services more challenging.”