LA Soup Kitchen's Homeless Clients Cause Crime, Say Neighbors FWD

Tom Boland (
Fri, 24 Apr 1998 22:40:12 -0700 (PDT)
FWD Thursday, April 23, 1998

  By John Canalis - Special to The Langeles 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
     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
     "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
     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."
* * *

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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