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In Costa Mesa, homelessness is where the heart isn't

Mayor Eric Bever is trying to close the private soup kitchen serving 300 homeless daily. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he says it attracts out-of-towners.

October 18, 2012|Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Someone Cares soup kitchen in Costa Mesa serves 300 homeless people daily.
Someone Cares soup kitchen in Costa Mesa serves 300 homeless people daily. (Christina House / For The…)

Head west on 19th Street in Costa Mesa. First, you hit the monumentalist architecture of the 24-Hour Fitness club and Road Runner Sports. Then comes the more modest cash-for-gold outlet and a pawnshop. Finally, half-hidden behind a clutch of palm trees and shrubs, the squat gray building of the Someone Cares soup kitchen comes into view.

Clearly, we're on the wrong side of the tracks.

Orange County people once hoped to leave those tracks behind, across the L.A. County line. But those days are long over. For decades, Orange County has had all the good and ills of a modern metropolis: universities, museums, theaters and yes, the homeless.

Costa Mesa Mayor Eric Bever, however, seems to be lost in a reverie of days gone by. He's convinced the 300 people that line up at the city's soup kitchen each day are streaming in from across the county, the state and even the nation. And he's asked city staff to investigate shutting Someone Cares down.

"If we manage to put the kitchen out of business, that will go a long way toward addressing the attractive nuisance we have in this city," Bever said at the Oct. 2 Costa Mesa City Council meeting.

Bever's proposal is a new low in heartlessness in a stubbornly rotten economy — yes, even in Orange County. It also puts him to the right of the Republican Party.

The GOP wants private charities, not the government, to provide the social safety net. No less than Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate, showed up at a soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio, last Saturday.

Bever says he's not against the city taking care of its own. But he insists, against all evidence to the contrary, that the soup kitchen is a magnet for outsiders who are "engulfing " Costa Mesa with their nuisance and sanitation violations.

"It's more like a buffet line than a soup kitchen," Bever said. "It's world famous. If somebody writes a book about greasy spoons, it would be in there."

Bever is also going after Share Our Selves, an agency in Costa Mesa that offers free mental and dental care and — in Bever's words — "grocery handouts." Someone Cares runs largely on donations and volunteer labor from Costa Mesa citizens, retirees and aspiring university students seeking community service credits for their resumes.

It is supported by corporations including Trader Joe's, which donates much of the food. When I visited Tuesday, a Wells Fargo representative was dropping off a $10,000 check.

Lining up for plates of chile colorado or verde, chicken mole, green and fruit salads and rice and beans were people like Joyce, a resident of Costa Mesa for 37 years. Joyce fell sick and lost her job at an Orange County ophthalmologist's office. She is living in her car, off her meager Social Security payments.

Seniors from the nearby 18-story Bethel Towers apartments lined a bench.

Rickey Wiseman worked for airline ground crews for 24 years at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, and at airfields in Ontario and in San Diego. He moved into the Costa Mesa Motor Inn when his airline's stock retirement plan went ka-blooie.

"There's been homeless people here for decades," Wiseman said.

Some of the diners came from other Orange County cities. Robert Williams, 94, a fisherman who also waited tables at the Hurley Bell — the late, lamented Corona del Mar landmark restaurant — drives in from his home in Newport Beach because he doesn't like the "green stuff" at the senior center.

But no one I talked to seated at the family-style tables knew of a single person that traveled there from L.A. County or points beyond.

"We don't get it," said Shannon Santos, Someone Cares' executive director. Surveys show the overwhelming majority of their patrons are from Costa Mesa; the mayor has never even visited the soup kitchen, she said.

Bever dismissed the charity's surveys as worthless.

"If you're a homeless person you're from wherever you're standing," he said.

The mayor is termed out from the City Council and is running for the Mesa Consolidated Water District board. He conceded his proposal was extreme.

"Are you familiar withe the term saber-rattling?" he asked. "Sometimes you have to shake things up."

But this isn't the first time Costa Mesa has produced a radical piece of social engineering. The City Council became the darling of the far right last year by calling for cutting its municipal workforce in half and contracting out services. That proposal is tied up in court, but the council is still working on it.

Wiseman, the former airline employee, said he knows the homeless sometimes cause problems. But where are they to go?

"All [Bever's] talking about is getting rid of something," Wiseman said.

Joyce said Costa Mesa police recently rousted her from her car at Lion's Park, and told her to move on to Huntington Beach or Fountain Valley. The officers relented when they saw her car wouldn't start, and other homeless people helped her move it to a new location.

Bever said he did not ask police to run the homeless out of town. But his proposal boils down to the same thing: getting them to go to wherever, as long as it's .... somewhere else.

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