The Frugal Gourmet

Costa Mesa soup-kitchen volunteer feeds families after brush with deportation

Photo by Nick SchouKevin is a 43-year-old surf bum with deep set, piercing eyes, a weather-beaten, sun-scorched face and graying ducktails. You might say that the best thing about his 45-day stay at Terminal Island's federal detention facility this summer was the free food and hot showers. Kevin overstayed his South African tourist visa 16 years ago. He's been homeless for the last three years.

Kevin fled his home in Durban, South Africa, for Orange County in 1986, not to escape apartheid, but in search of big waves and Southern California's laid-back, carefree lifestyle. He says he's been able to stay here so long because he's always stayed out of trouble. That is, he did until this summer, when Costa Mesa police cited Kevin for a moving violation while he rode his bicycle.

After he showed up to pay his $40 ticket, his extended stay in the U.S. finally caught up with him: the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) sent him packing to the INS prison at Terminal Island. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, thousands of people like him have been similarly rounded up and hauled off to federal prisons while immigration authorities scour their records for deportable offenses.

"I saw Iranians in there who have been behind bars since Sept. 11," he said. "Most of the guys in there are gang members from Central America and Mexico who get released because their countries won't take them back."

After more than a month in prison, Kevin says, he appeared before a federal judge. "They kept looking for something I did so they could deport me, but they couldn't find anything," he said. "I've never given a false Social Security number. I've committed no crimes. The judge couldn't believe I was in there for a bicycle ticket. So he ordered them to let me go immediately."

For the past several months, Kevin has volunteered at the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa. "I was eating here anyway and just kind of fell into this," he says, stirring a pot of chicken curry as Carlos Santana blares on a tape deck perched above the stove.

More than 300 people show up for a free, all-you-can eat meal between 1 and 4 p.m. each day. One of them, Barbara Vaughn, a 60-year-old transplant from Chattanooga, Tennessee, has been homeless for two years. She's been staying at different local homeless shelters and slept on a park bench during the recent rain. She wears a raincoat a woman gave her while she was sitting outside a local McDonald's.

Vaughn used to live in Newport Beach with her daughter but became homeless after her son-in-law evicted her. "He took a picture of a pizza knife on my bed and told the police I had threatened them," she said. "They filed a restraining order against me and had it extended for a year. They moved to Toledo. I worked for a while as a housekeeper in Newport, but the woman I worked for had a car accident and had to let me go."

Another regular soup-kitchen customer is Nigel, a British expatriate who used to work as a senior electronics technician until he fell off a ladder while helping a friend and got a bad concussion. "The accident put me on disability," he said. "I've got epilepsy and have had three grand mal seizures so far. My medication makes me shake like a bloody leaf."

Nigel says he's been homeless for three years and lives out of his van with his homeless friend Kathy, a former insurance saleswoman. "I'll be out of this mess someday, but I won't forget what I've seen," Kathy said.

She and Nigel want to go to Las Vegas, where it's warmer, but can't leave Costa Mesa because Nigel has to keep a court appearance for making an illegal turn in his van. He tries to avoid the homeless shelters in Costa Mesa because he's not religious and isn't fond of the constant proselytizing. "I'm a devout atheist," he said. "My prayer book has a handle and is full of 20 ounces of Guinness, but not for long."

Not everyone who uses the kitchen is homeless, though; many have jobs that don't pay enough to keep food on the table. The shelter also provides a free tutoring program for local elementary school kids and has also launched a program to teach English to local parents.

"The reason I opened [the tutoring program] is that I kept thinking that these children need help with their homework and their parents don't speak the language," said Merle Hatleberg, the kitchen's founder and director. "We want to get everyone on the same page."

"Some of our guests are working poor—families with kids," added Shannon Santos, the soup kitchen's manager. "After paying their rent and bills, they can't afford to buy food. But we also have homeless people that migrate from county to county, senior citizens on fixed incomes, and mentally and physically challenged people. We don't ask people any questions about who they are or where they're from. We encourage them to go through the food line as many times as they want."

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