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Embracing the Unexpected

When we learned that our services would be reduced in the wake of the pandemic, it could be presumed that there was a collective sigh of relief, but also an unexpressed guilt. The relief that staff and volunteers would be able to practice appropriate self care and necessary health precautions, but an even greater uncertainty as to how this would affect our guests – this coming at a time of abnormally cool and wet weather for Sacramento in March. 

Warm meals were still offered to our guests, but instead of dining inside, they were handed containers with food. I watched as some headed to the streets outside of the campus or returned to Friendship Park for their meal. I watched as a woman gathered her belongings outside of Maryhouse and glancing down, I acknowledged her feet – covered only in socks and a pair of slippers. I offered her a slight smile and wondered if that was insulting considering the circumstances. 

As we wait for the city to offer temporary shelter for our guests, we wonder if this is enough. If we are offering enough. If we are advocating enough. We ask ourselves “why” and sometimes unrelentingly question our actions and behaviours and wonder if any of this is creating an impact in the positive direction of change. We have to create the necessary boundaries for ourselves to maintain the necessary emotional well-being to return to these same questions every day; but as humans, as empathetic persons, we find it more difficult on some days to separate ourselves from the sense that we are responsible for our guests. 

While I am only one of many staff and volunteers on our campus, I do recognize we are all similar in spirit. So I recognize that I am just one of many that walks on campus lost in my own thoughts. As I exited the Annex one morning recently, I immediately released myself from these thoughts and became a  witness to simple joy. A boy, possibly slightly older than two years of age, was pumping his little legs up and down in a puddle that had developed from the overnight rain. He seemed oblivious to everyone around him and I looked up and made eye contact with his mother. She said, “He is in the wrong shoes for that but…” She trailed off knowing I would fill in the blanks, “But he is having so much fun and I live to see him smile.” I continued walking and he stopped stomping and reached down with his toddler sized gloved hand to tenuously reach down and touch his smiling reflection. 

His mother, with his sibling, were slowly walking towards their vehicle and she called for him. As with most children, he was hesitant to leave his fun, but already knew better, even at his young age, than to create too much conflict with his mom. He toddled towards her and his sibling and I waved goodbye and also verbalized “bye bye.” In his loudest voice, he said “bye” and waved. I turned around and walked down North C Street in the opposing direction. A couple of seconds later I hear “bye,” punctuated by another “bye” a second after. I paused, turned slightly and realized he had stopped in the middle of North C Street, looking in my direction, and was saying goodbye to me still. I stopped, turned around, repeated my wave and “bye.” He seemed now satisfied with my response and followed his mother and sibling to their van. 

On this day, at least, I felt satisfied with the “why.”

Ron’s Triumph

At Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, a past guest’s triumphs are always a cause to celebrate. It can sometimes be difficult to stay optimistic amongst so much need and so few supportive resources, so listening to our former guests’ success stories helps motivate and inspire us to welcome each guest, new or returning, with hope for that wonderful day when homelessness is behind them for good.

We recently had an update from Ron, a former guest who struggled on and off with homelessness for fourteen years. During his experience with homelessness he relied on Loaves & Fishes to help him meet his most immediate survival needs. He had counseling appointments at Genesis, read in the Library, and had hearty lunches at the Dining Room, which helped him focus his attention on finding employment.

In 2017, Ron was introduced to the Rapid Rehousing Program. He and a friend got a 2-bedroom house rent-free for six months, after which they would cover the rent. With housing secured, Ron was able to gain and maintain employment.

In sharing his story, Ron wants people to understand that homelessness is a complex problem. There are many different kinds of people that find themselves homeless. While some have addictions or mental health problems, some “just had a bad break or two.”

We are thankful to Ron for updating us on his life, and giving us his perspective on the issues surrounding homelessness. We know that no one understands the situation better than those who have lived it.

Daryl

Conversations about mental illness and substance abuse seem to inevitably arise when talking about homelessness – but what about physical disability? A physical handicap can have profound effects on an individual, leading to limited access to work, unemployment, and homelessness.

Physical disability is a big part of why Daryl, a guest at Loaves & Fishes, became homeless. He is nearly sixty years old, and his health is far from what it used to be.

As a young man Daryl felt like he could conquer the world. He was a baseball player, and everything came easily to him. Daryl says with plain nostalgia, “it’s a big difference in the quality of living, quality of life.” After his time playing baseball he moved to Los Angeles and became a truck driver.

Daryl moved to Sacramento several months ago, but his health took a rapid downturn within his first month in town. He lost his leg to complications with diabetes, and has had to learn how to function with a prosthetic leg. He can no longer drive, and mentioned that the income that he has is “not very much.” Within days of arriving in Sacramento he also had to undergo a triple bypass surgery. His multiple health complications over the past months have made it impossible to find housing. While he is hopeful, recovering and recuperating is his main focus.

He is currently staying with a friend, but does not like being dependent on others. “I like doing things on my own. I don’t look for anybody to take care of me, even though with my illness–I get on the train, I do everything,” he says. As he looks toward the future, he hopes to quickly find a place to live. In the more distant future Daryl has a vision of owning a boat and floating down the river, hopping on and off as he pleases.

Although Daryl faces a lot of challenges, he is grateful for Loaves & Fishes and its programs. He gives special praise to the Washroom, where he enjoys hot showers and laundry, and the Dining Room for its hearty meals. “I think this place is great if you ask me. It really is.”

Until he achieves his goal of riding his boat down the river, we will be ready to welcome him with nutritious breakfasts and lunches, showers and laundry, and essential survival services to help him get through the day – and on to the day when he is no longer homeless.

The Ongoing Miracle: Our Dining Room Program

On any given day, our Dining Room Program can serve between 350 to 1,000 homeless men, women, and children. We strive to provide a warm, nutritious, and filling meal to every guest that enters into the Dining Room for lunch and based on feedback from our guests, we seem to be achieving this goal.

Yet, I remained curious about the Dining Room Program and decided to discuss this program with Chris Delany, co-founder of Loaves & Fishes. I wanted to know what her initial vision was for the Program and what she has learned along the way.  Here is what she had to say:

What has been your overall hope for the Dining Room Program?

My hope was that it would keep going as long as it was needed, that we would have enough volunteers, and that we would have staff who understood and appreciated our mission, plus who would treat our guests like they would Jesus Christ.

Do you think the program has achieved this goal?

Yes, for all these years it has gone beautifully. I think of it as an “on-going miracle”.

How have you seen the program change over the years?

The program has not changed very much over the years, except for the location and the physical size.

Did you ever expect the Dining Room Program to expand as much as it has? Where do you see the program in the future?

No. When we started the Dining Room, I thought it would die down after a few years, yet the numbers kept growing. It seems there is always going to be a need. The numbers continue to grow. There will always be a need.

 

What has been the most rewarding part?

People are amazed that we started Loaves & Fishes. When I talk with groups, I like to tell them that Dan and I planted a tree with Loaves & Fishes. And that tree has grown so much that it now bears fruit and the people take the food and sleep under that tree. I am just amazed. And I call it a miracle.

If you could change one thing about the Dining Room Program, would you?

I don’t think I would change anything. It’s doing God’s work.

What is your favorite meal served in the Dining Room?

Taco Casserole!

What do you wish the greater Sacramento community understood about our homeless community?

Everything. Have heart for people who live in poverty, who don’t have any breaks. There really could be no poverty if everyone had a job, had housing, had money. But, that doesn’t seem to be coming. I’m 85 years old, but it hasn’t changed very much in people helping others.

Anthony & Michelle

Doug Winter, a professional photographer, comes to Loaves & Fishes once a month to take beautiful portraits of our guests. When he has time, he likes to interview the subjects of his photographs to capture the story behind their eyes.

Anthony and Michelle started their relationship four years ago on the streets of Sacramento. Together, they have helped each other overcome a drug addiction and agonizing ongoing circumstances.

At the age of four, Michelle was severely burned in a house fire started by her cousin who was playing with matches. She was burned over 80% of her body and was in a coma for a week due to the smoke inhalation she sustained in the house fire. A doctor told her parents she would never walk again.

“I heard the doctors say to my mother, ‘Your daughter will never be able to walk again.’” Michelle contemplatively reflects and continues, “That’s when God said to me: “Get up!’ So, I got up, grabbed my IV and walked over to my father.”

Slowly, over the years, Michelle, a college educated mother of two, was forced into a wheelchair due to the lifelong injuries she sustained from the house fire and other serious medical problems she battles daily.

Anthony and Michelle had been living together in a tent but their tent was recently burned down. Michelle points to racism, “…because after the tent was burned, one of my hooded sweatshirts had rope with a noose around the neck of it and it was set on top of the burned debris.”

“There are a lot of racist people out there but we all bleed the same color,” Michelle says softly.

“Everything was gone,” Anthony explains. He told Michelle on the day their tent burned down, “We can’t worry about it because, it’s just material things, and we [just need to] pick it up and keep going.”

A survivor of many thefts, Anthony explains that people continually steal Michelle’s wheelchair. It’s been stolen seven times. Anthony explained that thieves have taken her wheelchair to the recycle center and try to recycle it for cash.

A few months ago, Anthony proposed to Michelle in “the garden,” a place that is special to both of them.  They plan on getting married but disagree on the timing of their wedding. Anthony wants to get a job, find a place to live and provide nice things for Michelle.  He envisions them leaving the streets when they are married.

Anthony’s social security card has been stolen many times and was stolen again recently. He is in the process of getting another card so he can start work at a restaurant and reach his goals before they marry.

Michelle pulls the Safe Grounds schedule from her purse, and unfolds the paper to see where they need to find shelter later in the evening. Safe Grounds is an outdoor site where homeless can camp legally. Anthony and Michelle bounce between Safe Grounds and Winter Sanctuary, a seasonal emergency shelter program sponsored by the County of Sacramento through the Department of Human Assistance.

Based on all her ongoing medical conditions, a doctor recently told Michelle she had seven months to live. Michelle reflects on this and conveys thoughtfully, “Only God can tell me when I’m going to die.”

Natalia Haas

Doug Winter, a professional photographer, comes to Loaves & Fishes once a month to take beautiful portraits of our guests. When he has time, he likes to interview the subjects of his photographs to capture the story behind their eyes.

Natalia Haas is homeless and recovering from brain surgery. Natalia’s entire stay in the hospital was 4-5 days for brain surgery and recovery. With pain meds in hand, hundreds of stitches still fresh above her right eye, marking the spot where her brain tumor was removed, Natalia and her husband left the hospital and set out to find shelter. They located a “safe place” under a bridge which provides both a barrier from the elements and protection from others who might be tempted to steal her valuable painkiller medication.

Hospitals do not extend recovery for homeless patients like Natalia or transfer them to other respite or care facilities. More often than not, homeless patients are discharged to the street to recover from surgery, cancer treatment, and other serious health conditions.

Elden Davis

Doug Winter, a professional photographer, comes to Loaves & Fishes once a month to take beautiful portraits of our guests. When he has time, he likes to interview the subjects of his photographs to capture the story behind their eyes.

Elden is homeless and battling lung cancer.

He was diagnosed with lung cancer at Sutter hospital, three months before this portrait was made. His fragile health blocked hospital staff from discharging him back onto the street. An unnamed organization, not affiliated with the hospital, stepped in to “help” Elden. Wearing large crucifixes and carrying Bibles, they approached Eldin while he lay medicated, groggy and recovering from treatments in his hospital bed. They proposed to help him with his medical care and housing. All Elden needed to do was sign their paperwork and instead of eventually going back to the street, he could leave the hospital and go straight into a warm room and a soft bed. They promised to provide him with meals and offered transportation to and from his doctor appointments and cancer treatments. Elden was relieved and extremely happy to have access this type of help. Using a clipboard to steady the paperwork, they passed Elden the clipboard and a pen. He signed every piece of paper they handed over to him.

Unfortunately, everything promised to Elden was a lie; manipulated trust powered by greed, a fiction of the most evil kind. Six weeks later Elden was homeless again. All his belongings had been stolen by the “people” who said they would help him. His wallet containing his ID was stolen too. They were able to gain access to his SSI payments and bank account through the paperwork Elden had signed. They began to drain his money and steal everything he had acquired over the year: 2 bikes, a cart, access to a storage unit and other necessities — Elden had essentially been robbed.

The Legal Clinic at Loaves & Fishes helped Elden get some of his money back, though he still experiences homelessness.

As I talk to Elden, he points east across the room to a small bindle nestled between the bookshelves in the library, “There’s my house, that rolling suitcase, that’s my world, or whats left of it.”

“What do you have in there that’s most precious to you?” I ask.

“My sleeping bag and the mat I lay on and of course my paperwork, a couple books and pictures — I lost everything. I mean it was total chaos because I have this cancer thing going on which is making me feel so sick and disoriented.

A few weeks ago I saw Elden and I waved to him. He put his hand up as he rounded the corner, entering the rain-soaked parking lot. Small gloomy pools of water dotted the pavement. Their watery darkness reflects back the unbreakable youth within this man. His newly acquired bike, cart, and rolling suitcase all move slow and steady to win a race that has yet to be won.

Please donate to Loaves & Fishes and help guests like Elden.

Mark Ryan

Doug Winter, a professional photographer, comes to Loaves & Fishes once a month to take beautiful portraits of our guests. When he has time, he likes to interview the subjects of his photographs to capture the story behind their eyes.

Mark Ryan arrived in Sacramento in the 1980’s and worked as an accounts receivable bank auditor for 14 years. He is 56 years old, college educated with a degree in business, and loves studying languages. He has been homeless on and off since 1999. 

Mark has an uncanny ability to recall an incredible amount of factual information.  Of his interest in languages, Mark says, “I like Spanish and German but we are lucky we speak English because English has twice as many words, and out of 67 possible sounds, English has 44, so we are hard wired for those 44 sounds.”

Sam

Doug Winter, a professional photographer, comes to Loaves & Fishes once a month to take beautiful portraits of our guests. When he has time, he likes to interview the subjects of his photographs to capture the story behind their eyes.

Homeless for almost 3 years, Sam hasn’t had an hourly paying job since 2009.

As we talk, Sam scans the room, puts his video poker game into his vest pocket, and explains, “I’ve worked all the temp agencies here in Sacramento and I worked for 12 years and I never got fired once. Every job [I worked] in Sacramento ended because it was temporary or seasonal or [the company] went bankrupt.”

Sam uses Loaves & Fishes and Friendship Park as a safe place to get coffee, food, hang out and sleep during the day. He works or stays up at nights and as Sam puts it, “I sleep in the day [and I’m awake at night]. You couldn’t sleep at night because there is always someone bugging you. On the weekends I go to Cesar Chavez park–it’s a pretty safe place.”

Morning

At daybreak, the Loaves & Fishes campus off North C Street is a sea of shopping carts, strollers, cars and bicycles.

Carts pushed by staffers contain the day’s food, survival and hygiene provisions. On any given day, that down jacket in the cargo may save someone from frostbite.

Guests – many carting belongings and camping gear — hunger for breakfast, with some walking miles to use restrooms largely unavailable throughout the city and county.

Mothers accompany children, many skipping to class at Mustard Seed. A man and woman — in love and homeless — make their way to Friendship Park, hand in hand.

Other guests, shoulders slumped, bear the burden of sleeping on concrete or the hard, cold ground, exposed to the elements day in and day out. Whether it’s the searing heat of a Sacramento summer or the damp chill of winter, there is no good season to be homeless.

But, Loaves & Fishes delivers compassion. Relationships are built slowly but surely amid gestures small but large, warming the hearts of many battling to survive in a society that worships credit scores and wealth.

Some of the more fortunate guests at Loaves & Fishes have the skills that many take for granted to secure housing and employment and the ability to adapt to a daily drumbeat of bills and schedules. Though considered the lucky ones, even for them, being homeless could last months, a year or years.

Acquiring housing is akin to winning the lottery for many who experience homelessness. Waiting lists for shelters are long and punitive anti-camping tickets are dispensed with a heavy hand in this community.

Mental illness is a slippery slope among the homeless, who feel vulnerable, isolated, deprived and routinely are witness to unspeakable violence and neglect. Expressions are haggard and eyes are often filled with mistrust.

For others, escaping homelessness is thwarted by long if not impossible odds. Because of disability or addiction, they lack the ability to adapt to the contours of the working world. Some suffer paranoid delusions. They may have no one to protect them or care for them. Thankfully, Loaves & Fishes staffers often must guide them through our services so that their most basic needs can be met.

The chronically homeless are often criminalized in a society that also frowns on the poor, disabled, mentally ill and minorities. Their lives are chalk full of daily indignities, horror stories and abuse – they have fallen through the cracks of this nation’s tattered social safety net.

This is a hard life of scant comfort– unimaginable to most looking in from the outside.

This is why, after a hard night, greeting the sea of guests with coffee and friendship is ingrained into the mission of Loaves & Fishes. It’s a transformative and dignifying gesture, befitting the promise of a new day and a world that someday will offer them a home