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FOCUS: ORANGE COUNTY COMMUNITY NEWS

In the Soup

Neighbors Blame Costa Mesa Kitchen's Homeless Clients for Crime

April 23, 1998|JOHN CANALIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The diners gather in the shuttered Chinese restaurant refashioned into a soup kitchen for a down-home American meal: ham, vegetables, tomato soup and cupcakes smothered in electric-pink frosting.

"I couldn't eat like this on my SSI," Richard Meredith, 48, said of his government benefits. "A lot of people use this soup kitchen, a lot more than general society expects."

These days, however, general society is clashing with Someone Cares Soup Kitchen about the offering of free meals amid West 19th Street's mix of homes for senior citizens, shops, taco stands and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Some neighbors and police blame the 150 to 200 daily diners for a variety of petty crimes ranging from littering to panhandling. The soup kitchen contends that it provides security, screens patrons and is the only charity providing regular, sit-down hot meals to the poor in Costa Mesa.

Like many of its clients, Someone Cares has led a transient life since it opened in 1986 at the Rea Community Center. Now operating for nearly a year on property it finally owns at West 19th Street and Pomona Avenue, the charity faces familiar complaints and now, a city funding cut that was more of a black eye to its image than to its budget.

"The same exact guys I see sleeping on the benches, offering to wash my windows at the gas station, are the same guys I see having lunch at the soup kitchen," said Patsy Latscha, 54, who lives nearby on Center Street. "They're getting a free meal, then you see them at the liquor store getting drunk right after."

Some merchants on West 19th also are complaining since the soup kitchen relocated a year ago from a Hamilton Street church courtyard.

"My business has dropped 15% to 20%," said Yun Uyu, 56, owner of Sunshine Liquor next door to the soup kitchen. "The good customers are not going to come here because of the street people."

In response to complaints, the City Council recently denied a request from Someone Cares for $20,000 in federal grant money, instead approving $5,000 be paid next fiscal year. This year, the kitchen received $15,000 from the city.

"I know that people have problems, but they can't cause grief for the citizens," said City Councilman Joe Erickson, who suggested the cuts. "The free food allows them to have cash to buy drinks, and when they drink we have problems. I believe in helping your fellow man, but I don't believe in helping an alcoholic buy his next drink."

Thanks to a $5,000 anonymous donation, Someone Cares has survived the cut, and does not expect to reduce services from its annual budget of about $100,000--most of which comes from private donations.

"It's not going to close my front door," said Merle Hatleberg, 74, director and founder of the soup kitchen. "If it's a sin to be poor and walk into a soup kitchen then shame on us."

Hatleberg said her primary clients are the working poor, not criminals, and she goes to great lengths to protect neighbors and screen out problems. Security guards try to deter loitering and deny entry to intoxicated customers.

Bill Turpit, head of Families-Costa Mesa, a social services network on 19th Street across the street from the soup kitchen, blames others for the social problems: "I think it's just as much a product of the bars and liquor stores. If anything, [the soup kitchen] encourages people to sober up during the day."

At Rio's Jewelry and Loan on the other side of the soup kitchen, owner Steve Simmons said he hasn't experienced any problems.

In response to the controversy, police, soup kitchen volunteers and Erickson met April 16 and agreed to print identification cards that will be required for free meals. Every time a patron is picked up for breaking the law, a hole will be punched in it. On the third punch, the card is forfeited.

"If it's my people, I want to know," Hatleberg said. "I am trying to work with the city as much as I can."

At the Costa Mesa Senior Center, less than a block away, police have been called occasionally for problems involving loitering or the elderly being harassed for change or cigarettes, but there's no way of knowing whether the troublemakers eat at the soup kitchen, director Thomas Gould said.

Police say they can tell.

Soup kitchen client April Johnson, 23, said free meals deter trouble: "If they do away with the soup kitchens, crime will go up because people have to eat. You'd have most of us in jail for shoplifting food."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

NEIGHBORHOODS / West 19th Street, Costa Mesa

Bounded by: Newport Boulevard on the east and Monrovia Avenue on the west.

Population: About 5,000 people in surrounding vicinity; includes mix of businesses, Costa Mesa Senior Center, Department of Motor Vehicles, Bethel Towers senior citizen housing complex and several homes.

Hot topic: Whether patrons of Someone Cares Soup Kitchen are causing problems, including loitering and panhandling.

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