A Letter from LeRoy Chatfield

Former Executive Director and Legacy Leader, LeRoy Chatfield writes about his years of experience fighting for poverty justice and the work that still continues.

Dear Loaves & Fishes Friends, Supporters & Volunteers,

I write this letter  on my 86th birthday to bring to your attention what I consider to be a humanitarian crisis and a grave social injustice that plagues our entire Sacramento community – more than  6,000 residents have to live on our streets, in their cars, along the edges of the railroad right-of-ways and along the banks of the Sacramento and American rivers.

I am not talking about “the homeless” in the abstract, I am talking about families, men, women and children whose only human “mistake” is they do not  – did not – earn enough money to afford 2020 rents in Sacramento.

For those who had a job, it paid only minimum wage, for those now laid off because of the Pandemic, they no longer receive unemployment, for those who are qualified to receive Social Security Disability, the monthly stipend is not enough to meet the rent, the list goes on, each person or family compelled to live outside on the street has their own reason – but the bottom line is always the same: they cannot earn enough money to pay market rate rents.

If employers cannot pay a living wage that will include enough money for rent, then it falls to our City and County elected officials to insure that enough low cost affordable housing is built so that low wage workers and their families are properly housed.  Yes, that is the way it is supposed to work, but I assure it does not work that way for minimum wage workers in Sacramento. Our local government elected leaders do not support building very low cost housing that  the poor, the disabled, and  low wage workers  can afford to rent.

In my book: To Serve The PeopleMy Life Organizing With Cesar And The Poor, I wrote:

“Local government – not unlike business profit employers – considers minimum-wage working people to be relatively worthless. Truth be told, such people are considered to be a drag on the local economy, a negative influence on a desirable quality of life for the rest of the community, and insatiable consumers of social services.

Does this sound harsh and unfairly critical of local government? Yes, I’m sure it does. Is it true? Let me assure you, it is. Permit me to qualify; it is true here in the capital city of the state of California.

Understandably, no local elected government official talks publicly about these harsh realities. There is no need to talk; their policies say it all. Some examples: many hundreds of affordable housing units were razed in the downtown area to lay the groundwork for a more desirable major league high-rise future; its own housing agency was forbidden to bring low-cost housing proposals forward for consideration; NIMBYism has been deliberately fostered in order to bury housing advocates and nonprofit developers; zoning codes were used to impede the development of affordable housing; and punitive special-use permits mandated astronomically expensive building requirements for midtown low-income housing. Dare I describe such policies as “cleansing”?”

There are no religious or moral tenets that we profess to believe and live by that permit us to stand by silent and complicit as our elected leaders refuse to build quality and well managed low-cost housing to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in our Sacramento community.

In my view – based on 25-years of experience –  our elected leaders seem to believe that people who have money are deemed to be moral and worthy citizens; those who do not are immoral and unworthy, and worse yet, unwelcome. These views are antithetical to and a corruption  of our cultural Judeo-Christian heritage, which holds that because God created each person in His own image and likeness, each person is not only good in the eyes of his Creator but also a recipient of His unconditional love.

I leave you with this thought: The only difference between me and a homeless person in Sacramento is I live in a house, my homeless counterpart does not. Those of us who live in a house need to insure that each and every person in our community is given that same opportunity.

I hope this letter finds you and your loved ones to be safe and in good health.

LeRoy Chatfield

(Loaves & Fishes tenure: executive director; board member; golden day project; fund raiser; friendship park homeless breakfast program.)

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. 



To Serve the Least of These

Mustard Seed School team member supporting the Sacramento Loaves & Fishes Dining Room.

Four weeks ago I greeted my preschool students at my classroom door with their choice of a high-five, a handshake, or a hug. There was a feeling of uncertainty in our program as talk of countywide school closures due to COVID-19 signaled the potential for Mustard Seed to close its doors to a regular academic day. One of my students, an energetic lover of all things glue and scissors, turned 5 that day. We celebrated with a morning birthday circle and cupcakes and juice boxes brought by the birthday girl’s mom at lunchtime. It was the first and last day for my youngest student, who had recently turned 3, and I was worried his mom might be upset when she picked him up and saw his cheeks and hands stained with red dye from his celebratory cupcake.

Fast forward one week, and my classroom, along with the other four Mustard Seed classrooms, were closed. Our office remained open. Our Outreach Coordinator, Lucia, made phone calls to parents and shelters, checking in with our students, offering whatever services were available. But were they still our students? Where were the families we were unable to contact? Were they safe? How do we continue to help as the guidelines for protecting ourselves and each other from getting sick get tighter every day?

My duties as a Montessori preschool teacher at a school for children experiencing homelessness felt obsolete, and my new role became support for other programs at Loaves & Fishes still serving and meeting the survival needs of our guests in a pandemic. Mustard Seed staff began checking in with Maryhouse, Friendship Park, and the Dining Room, hoping to help. For the past few weeks, we have been supporting in any way possible. A few of us have been making hygiene kits, sorting donations, and restocking items handed to guests by gloved hands through the Maryhouse front entrance. Other staff have worked in the service center at Friendship Park and handed out lunch tickets to our guests. All of us have found ourselves prepping and serving lunch in the dining room. We have tried to be more of a help than a nuisance, and we have found ourselves in awe of the unique work and skills required of each program.

It has been in the dining room, the heartbeat of Loaves & Fishes, where my compassion and understanding of the guest has been fortified. I am struck, daily, by the resiliency of the men and women who go to sleep in a tent each night, thrown away by our society, who wake up each morning ready to live, and make their way to Loaves & Fishes for a hot meal. It has been the act of handing hot meals in a styrofoam container through a window to 400 men and women each day that has solidified my faith in the work of the saints around me and the mission of this holy place.

I am still a teacher, holding space in my heart for my students and their families. While my teaching duties are on hold, I remain committed to the philosophy and intention of Loaves & Fishes: to serve the least of these.

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.

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.

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