A Brief Personal History of Organizing Unhoused People in Sacramento

Follow Sacramento Loaves & Fishes former Executive Director, Tim Brown, as he shares his organizing history for homeless advocacy in Sacramento. This is a multi-part story share.

Written by Tim Brown

Part I. 1980-1995

I moved from San Diego to Sacramento in 1982 to attend the Graduate School of Social Work at Sacramento State with a focus on Community Organizing. From 1979 to 1980 I had served as a Peace Corp/VISTA Volunteer for the San Diego Housing Coalition. I can tell you that in 1980 we did not have homelessness as we have it today. Not until Ronald Reagan became president and shifted (with congressional approval) 75% of the federal housing budget into the military budget. My mentors at the Housing Coalition warned that in ten years we could have depression era numbers of homeless families, and they were right.

Over the next two years I worked in downtown San Diego helping people who lived in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Hotels, an important cheap housing resource that was fast disappearing. I began to see my clients and others become homeless due to rising rents and few low-income housing opportunities. The same was happening in Sacramento and in big cities across the U.S.

Big developers subsidized by Urban Redevelopment replaced the SRO hotels with high end uses. By the time I moved here there were hundreds of homeless people, many displaced by the redevelopment of Old Town and Downtown.

There were obviously other factors contributing to the growth of homelessness: changes in family stability, the loss of well paying union jobs in the industrial midwest, VietNam Veterans dealing with war trauma, to just name a few. However, at its core, modern homelessness is about the affordability and accessibility of housing.

In 1983, after spending the summer in Nicaragua learning Spanish, I became the Director of the Central America Action Committee (CAAC) in Sacramento, organizing to stop the Reagan Administration from creating another Vietnam War in Central America. It was around the time Loaves & Fishes was started, I met Chris and Dan Delany, the founders. From 1983 to 1986 we were leaders in organizing protests and non-violent, civil disobedience actions, mostly aimed at the Federal Building in Sacramento.

Dan and Chris had been involved in countless peace, anti-nuclear and anti-poverty protests before I met them and were contemporaries of Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan. We were arrested together along with up to sixty local activists maybe fifteen times in pursuit of peace in Central America. Dan and Chris Delany introduced me to Bob Sieber who was a VietNam veteran and helicopter pilot who had spent time in jail with Daniel Berrigan.

In 1986 Bob Sieber organized homeless people, who were mostly men, to camp out at the Sacramento County Administration Building. This protest for more shelter and services to people suffering from homelessness, started with a few  and grew to over a hundred people over a six month period. Despite growing numbers of homeless people in Sacramento, the City and County ignored the problem saying there were enough shelter beds, but shelters were full with long waiting lists.

Bob’s camp out led to some additional shelter beds and he was given local funding through Transitional Living and Community Services (TLCS) to start the Poverty Resistance Center (PRC) in a building at 20th and D Streets. I joined his board of directors that year and started organizing for more shelter, services and housing for the growing homeless population. At this time, Loaves & Fishes was focused on offering a hearty and warm meal and the PRC was a place to come inside during the day and work with a team that offered support in locating resources and advocacy. 

Part II. 1980-1995

At the end of 1985 I was hired by Case Management Services (CMS), Sac. County Division of Mental Health to work with severely and persistently mentally disabled adults in the Central city and North Sac. So many of our CMS clients were becoming homeless that a Homeless Team was formed in 1986/87 and I became its first outreach worker. I soon discovered there were few services and little housing that our clients could access. Many suffered from both substance abuse and serious mental illness so they were turned away by both mental health services and substance abuse programs.

At the Poverty Resistance Center (PRC) the police started bringing homeless women at night, who had no place else to go, and the night watchman would allow them into the building for shelter. This was the same time that Loaves & Fishes (L&F) founded the MaryHouse program with Sister Laura Ann Walton and Sister Maria Fitzgerald as the first Directors, due to so many women becoming homeless. We decided to open the PRC as a women’s night shelter, though we didn’t have a permit nor any additional funding. We each took a night to volunteer to staff the shelter and we’d shelter up to twenty-five women a night. By 1987 the PRC was closed and Bob Sieber left town and a void was created, but the women’s shelter moved to another un-permitted site in Mid-Town, now called St. Vincent’s Inn.

I was still working full-time at CMS with homeless people with mental conditions and organizing to change the system so that people with co-occuring disorders could access the help they needed. After the PRC a small group of people, including myself, my friend Stephen Switzer, Rev. Dave Moss from Loaves & Fishes, a formerly homeless woman and a couple others had a meeting and formed SHOC, the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee with the goal of organizing homeless folks to participate in the political system and have their voices heard. I remember the first fundraising letter we sent and our largest two donations were from Catholic Bishop Francis Quinn and Congressman Bob Matsui.

On my lunch break we would meet at Loaves & Fishes where a couple hundred people would be lined up along 12th Street to get their free meal and we’d hand out fliers inviting folks to come to City Hall on the night of the City Council meeting. We’d provide a free meal on the lawn at City Hall, then go into the council meeting, wait until the public input was allowed and give testimony.

That year a number of things started to come together: Loaves & Fishes opened Friendship Park where Rev. Dave Moss and Rev. Chris Hartmire were co-directors. I met LeRoy Chatfield, who had worked closely with Cesar Chavez and was the first Loaves & Fishes Director who allowed us to outreach and organize meetings with homeless folks at their facilities and to use their kitchen to cook meals for our actions. We began to build a coalition that would soon become the Sacramento Housing Alliance. The City and County opened more shelter beds and through our urging, began to operate a winter shelter. We held weekly SHOC meetings in Friendship Park and began to empower homeless folks to become leaders. I’m very proud that SHOC continues under the direction of formerly homeless folks for now over thirty years.

Personally, I learned that I could help even the most disabled people if I put in the time to get to know them and listen to them, gain their trust and provide very basic services like rides in my car to places they wanted to go (even if I knew they were responding to delusions caused by a mental condition), go with them to Social Security to apply for disability income, take them to Loaves & Fishes, mental health and substance abuse programs, help them reunite with family or find housing once they had benefits and respond to their emergencies. 

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