Column: She feeds hundreds of homeless daily in Orange County. City officials want her out

ORANGE, CA. September 9, 2021: Gloria Suess talks to a friend at Mary's Kitchen in Orange on a Thursday morning. The kitchen gives out free meals and showers to homeless people but the city wants them out by September 18th because they say it's no longer a good neighbor. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
Gloria Suess talks to a friend at Mary's Kitchen, the Orange-based nonprofit where she is president and chief executive. Sept. 18 is the day city officials have said Mary's Kitchen must vacate the city-owned lot after 26 years. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Clad in a black-and-white patterned full-length dress, with perfectly coiffed light-red hair, tinted glasses, and turquoise earrings that matched the cross around her neck, 82-year-old Gloria Suess looked better suited for Sunday Mass than helping out the homeless on a sweltering weekday morning.

But that was her, pounding the pavement in clogs during breakfast service on Thursday at Mary’s Kitchen, the Orange-based nonprofit where she’s president and CEO. This humble collection of outdoor benches, showers, washing machines and port-a-potties is one of the last shelters in Orange County where the homeless can partake in services without referrals or even an ID. The group stays true to the slogan painted on the double-wide trailer that serves as the headquarters for Mary's Kitchen: "A place where everyone is welcome."

Suess lugged around bags of toilet paper and climbed inside shipping containers to search for tools. She walked into the kitchen to check in on the progress of the roast beef sandwiches that would be lunch. She walked out with a milk crate labeled “Soap” filled with clamshell containers of blueberry muffins that she dropped off at a table for people to munch on.

A man hangs out at Mary's Kitchen in Orange.
A man hangs out at Mary's Kitchen on Thursday. The Orange nonprofit's collection of outdoor benches, showers, washing machines and port-a-potties is one of the last shelters in Orange County where homeless people can get services without referrals or even an ID. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The octogenarian whom staff and volunteers freely call "Mom" only stopped when patrons came up to her and offered their gratitude and condolences. Sept. 18 is the day Orange officials have said Mary’s Kitchen must vacate the city-owned lot from where it has fed hundreds of thousands of down-on-their-luck folks over the last 26 years.

Despite agreeing to renew the soup kitchen’s lease and operating agreement just two years ago, city officials now say it's a civic nuisance. They pin rising crime rates in the surrounding industrial area on it and argue that Mary’s Kitchen no longer vibes with the city’s self-proclaimed “continuum of care” to end homelessness.

To them, Suess’ method of charity for the unhoused — give people free meals three times a day, six days a week, a place to bathe and use restrooms, and connect folks with other organizations — is antiquated.

“If you opened a gas station in 1929, in 2021 you don’t expect to see the same pump, because we know more,” said Orange Councilwoman Arianna Barrios. “The cars are different. And Mary’s Kitchen has just not evolved.”

Barrios says that prostitution, drug sales, and assaults were happening on the cul-de-sac where Mary’s Kitchen is located, which is within eyesight of Orange Police Department headquarters.

Men hang out at Mary's Kitchen in Orange on a Thursday morning.
A group of men congregate at Mary's Kitchen, whose slogan is "A place where everyone is welcome." (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“It was like a scene out of 'Dante’s Inferno,'” Barrios said, “and the police felt like their hands were tied.”

Suess scoffed at the city’s assertions during a short break. Mary’s Kitchen spent tens of thousands of dollars on security guards and cameras to monitor any unsavory activity when the city asked it to, she said.

She’s exploring legal options to remain but vows Mary’s Kitchen will continue one way or another.

“We’re not pretty,” she said. “I understand that. But we were doing this ‘continuum of care’ before it had a name.”

She paused, then laughed. “We always called it ‘taking care of people.’”

Any sense of anger among volunteers and guests about the impending closure of Mary's Kitchen was tempered by reality: People still needed to be fed. Free clothes still needed to get distributed.

“It’s a good place for a bad crowd,” said 31-year-old Jason Gibson, who has lived on the streets for about three years but found out about Mary’s Kitchen only a couple of weeks ago. “How is the bad crowd supposed to be part of the good crowd if the good crowd doesn’t let them in?”

A man plays with his dog Gabriel.
A man plays with his dog, Gabriel, at Mary's Kitchen. Officials in Orange argue that the soup kitchen no longer aligns with the city's self-proclaimed "continuum of care" to end homelessness. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“Here, you can find dignity,” said Jose Luis Sanchez Elias, a 48-year-old formerly homeless Mexican immigrant who has volunteered for four years. “Mom’s patience with people is almost biblical.”

Patrick Larosa heads the food line every Tuesday and Thursday. On the morning I visited, breakfast was scrambled eggs and bacon, with packets of Tapatío and ketchup as condiments and pastries or peaches for dessert. He offered a cheery “Good morning” to everyone and reminded them that seconds were only possible after everyone had a chance to eat.

“I’m a Christian, and we need to take care of the least of our brothers," said Larosa, a retired aerospace estimator. "I think in Orange, there’s not enough people who feel that way.”

Helping the homeless was an unlikely midlife turn for Suess. She was a successful real estate broker during the 1980s when she heard about Mary McAnena, a then 82-year-old retired nurse who offered free meals at Hart Park. Then, as now, Orange officials felt that an elderly woman feeding homeless people was too big of a task for her, and wanted McAnena to stop.

Suess began to assist McAnena, an Irish immigrant who came to the United State as a young woman through Ellis Island.

“We had nothing,” Suess said. “We had to beg for everything. But Mary would always tell me, ‘You take care of it, dear.’”

What began as pots of soup cooked at McAnena’s home turned into a kitchen trailer. That turned into the full facility it is today. Suess took over Mary's Kitchen after McAnena passed away at 100, and transformed Mary’s Kitchen into a powerhouse — its 2019 tax returns show assets of $2.2 million. City and council officials praised Suess and her army of volunteers, and donations and grants rolled in.

Peter Rulas eats a meal at Mary's Kitchen in Orange on Thursday morning.
Peter Rulas eats a meal at Mary's Kitchen. "We're not pretty," Gloria Suess says about her operation. "I understand that. But we were doing this 'continuum of care' before it had a name." (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Meanwhile, the number of people served daily went from 64 in 2004 to about 200 by 2019. That’s the year that an Orange staff report recommending the city renew the nonprofit’s five-year lease noted, "For the amount of persons served and the small facilities they have overall, the facility is impressively neat and clean.”

So Suess was surprised when those same officials told her at the beginning of 2021 that Mary's Kitchen was now a problem, stating in a letter she "enable[d] homelessness and can no longer be supported by the city.”

City officials asked Suess to allow other, bigger nonprofits to step in and right everything, but Barrios said Suess refused. After months of discussions, the city gave Mary’s Kitchen a 90-day eviction notice in July.

Barrios said the city has received a barrage of criticism from activists, politicians, and even Diocese of Orange Bishop Kevin Vann, who called to express concern over the matter. But the lifelong Orange resident said outsiders are wrongly casting the city as heartless.

“It’s not that we want to change what they deliver, but it’s how they deliver,” the first-term council member said. “If Gloria came out and said, ‘Uncle. I accept help,' I would be the first one in line to stand with her and say, ‘We’re not closing this place.’”

Suess shook her head in disbelief when I told her about Barrios’ critiques. Suess was offended that Barrios doesn’t like that Mary’s Kitchen allows homeless people to volunteer.

“It gives them a feeling that they’re giving back,” she said. “It prepares them to transition back to society … that’s not good? First I’ve heard that one. The city doesn’t know what we do.”

Suddenly, someone yelled, “Gloria, we need help.” Two vans were trying to squeeze into a narrow driveway, ready to be unloaded. Her phone rang. More people were beginning to come in for lunch.

It was a reminder that, however this Orange County tale ends, the needy won't just disappear — even if a place like Mary's Kitchen does.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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