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

Father’s Day Portrait Revisited

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.

Six months ago, I photographed Andrea and many other men for Father’s Day at Loaves & Fishes but he never saw his portrait. Little did I know during that Father’s Day photo session that Andrea and I would meet up again. His big laugh and smile and humor are infectious. “Hey, do you have the photo of me from Father’s Day?” Andrea asked as he sat down on the worn wooden library chair under the broad light of our makeshift studio. “Yes, I have the photo.” I pulled out my phone and found the photo, “Here, take a look.”

Although Andrea’s photo was on the Loaves & Fishes website, many homeless don’t have access to on-line resources. He hadn’t seen it posted.

“I look the same, that’s the Father’s Day photo, right? I didn’t have a haircut or a shave. That’s why I left my hat on, too, probably. Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming up, and I’m trying to get home to Colorado. I’d love to give this photo to my kids.”

“I will get your photos for your kids.” I said as Andrea handed the phone back to me.

Andrea looked up and began reminiscing about his Denver childhood: “I graduated from East High school–I grew up in Park Hill. The big concrete gates to City Park–that was our backyard. Did I have a beautiful neighborhood and life? The golf course, the museum, the planetarium, the zoo, that was our backyard and I still have memories and dreams of that house. Those were beautiful times.”

Andrea and I talked about home, about Colorado. I’m from Colorado, too, and we shared a lot of the same feelings about our hometown. We talked about our small memories of Elitch Gardens, an amusement Park in Denver, and the giant wooden roller coaster that had been sheer terror and exhilaration to us as kids. Riding it was a rite of passage for young men.

“Downtown Denver is one of the most beautiful downtowns in the whole country and they moved Mr. Twister from Elitch Gardens [Mr. Twister is one of the biggest wooden roller coasters in the country] to downtown. It’s gonna be like Coney Island and Atlantic City and to me it’s on that level now. and Mr. Twister ‘aint no joke,” Andre said.

We found some common ground from our childhoods and of the experience growing up in the paradise of Denver, Colorado. It’s times like these when I find someone from this time and place from Denver that I miss my home. It makes me wonder what really makes a home. It makes me think of family and friends and the collective memories of everyone that has come and gone before me. From my time at Loaves & Fishes, I know this: family is where you find it and home can be carried in your heart.

Thanksgiving Care Packages, put together with love

The day before Thanksgiving, John. F. Kennedy High School junior, Victoria Chen, dropped off 192 Thanksgiving care packages at Loaves & Fishes.

The care packages contained essentials for guests like hand sanitizer, chap-stick, socks, deodorant and Kleenex.

Victoria collected the 990 items for the care packages through donation drives that she speerheaded at the Pocket Library, Key Club and the California Scholarship Federation.

She then recruited 50 volunteers to assemble the care packages at the Pocket Library.

“I wanted to bring the whole community in,” Victoria said. “Mostly teenagers came, but some seniors brought their grandchildren. A woman told me that she was glad that she came to volunteer because she was able to work with people of all ages.”

Victoria’s care packages were inspired by a project that she endeavored through the Summer at City Hall Program which engages rising high school juniors and seniors in community service. The project was a donation drive which collected school supplies for homeless shelters and day programs.

“I wanted to do my own take on the project because in the Sacramento area, homelessness is such a big issue,” Victoria said. “The number of people experiencing homelessness rose by 30% since last year. I hope that one little package can bring someone in their deepest, darkest moment joy this Thanksgiving.”

Leota Canady

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.

His artwork and journalism will begin appearing on our blog once a week. Doug operates his own photography studio — you can check out his work here

I made Leota’s portrait in June 2017 at the Loaves & Fishes library. The key around her neck caught the light; the silver metal winked and touched my eye. Loeta’s key reminded me of the latchkey my Mom gave me that I, too, wore around my neck to get into our house after school when I was a little kid.

I asked her, “What does the key mean to you?”

Stamped into the worn metal key Leota wore was the word “Chosen.” “God has “Chosen” me and He has me here for a purpose. He has something planned for you, too, but we don’t know what that is. But He knows our every step”.

Leota looked down at the ground, scanning, searching for the words. She lifted her head back up, meeting my gaze, her brown eyes twinkling in the soft sunlight. “We don’t know when things will happen because it’s on His time. God’s will, not ours, be done. To walk and have faith in Him and know He’s got something planned? That’s what “Chosen” means to me.”

Samuel’s Story

Samuel Cunningham, a current guest at Loaves and Fishes, has been homeless for the past six months.

He moved to Sacramento from Nebraska after he rekindled his relationship with his father who he has been estranged from for 27 years.

In Sacramento, Samuel pursued a welding, machining and engineering program, found love and got to know his father, a former Hell’s Angel who now is clean-shaven and works at a thrift store. Samuel supported himself by driving Lyft and rented an apartment in South Sacramento.

When he wanted his fiancé, Kaya, to move in with him, he had an argument with his roommate. After that, his car was stolen along with his social security card and birth certificate.

The event spelled the couple’s descent into homelessness and the disintegration of Samuel’s relationship with his roommate.

For two months, the couple lived out of a tent that Samuel’s father purchased for them in South Sacramento and quickly ran through their savings and monthly allotment of Calfresh dollars.

“When you are homeless, you don’t have a kitchen to cook in so it is amazing how fast your money for food goes,” he said. “We didn’t have any place to store food so we’d just go to the gas station and the dollar store and buy small packages of lunch meat, loaves of bread, snacks and drinks. When we ran through food stamps, I started collecting cans. It was pretty rough.”

A few of the couple’s friends would invite them over for dinner in exchange for Samuel’s mechanic services.

“I have 20 years of experience as a drywall contractor, but no one will hire me without an ID or a birth certificate,” Samuel said.

Samuel has worked since he was fourteen years old. He has often worked construction jobs during the day and then managed a variety of businesses including a McDonalds, a gas station, a bar and a movie theatre in the evening throughout his career.

“I was raised by my step-dad who was a Navy Seal, he taught me the merit of hard work,” Samuel said. “I’d love to take any job I could get even though I haven’t worked for minimum wage since I was 14 years old.”

Samuel and Kaya didn’t discover Loaves and Fishes until they had lived on the streets for months. The discovery of the homeless survival center has made their lives easier.

“The features that Loaves and Fishes offers are really awesome,” Samuel said. “It so wonderful to be able to get a backpack, camping gear, tarps and coffee at Friendship park. A lot of the staff is really friendly and truly goes the extra mile for you. Cycles for Hope  comes here to fix bikes and occasionally gives bikes away.”

Through the Street Sheet, a homeless resource guide, that Loaves and Fishes hands out, Samuel and Kaya have learned how to maximize their resources. On weekdays, they get breakfast at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, lunch in the dining room of Loaves and Fishes and dinner at Union Gospel Mission. They also grab food to eat on the weekends at food pantries.

“We only qualify for $185 Calfresh dollars, but if you manage that money wisely, it can last a long time,” he said. “We shop at Grocery Outlet and the 99 cent store to save money.”

“I joke around and say that being homeless is kind of like being on vacation, but a very sucky vacation,” he said. “You don’t have worry about bills, but you have to deal with some people who are difficult people. I have OCD so I like everything to be neat and organized, but not everybody feels the same way that I do. The police just moved us from the river to a lot behind the casino and said that if we keep it clean, we won’t get arrested for being there. I police the area and pick up the mess that other people make and because of that sometimes people get angry at me for being in their space. If you get camping tickets, you have to do community service and after so many tickets, they take you to jail and you can’t get any of your stuff back for 90 days. I feel lucky that I’ve never gotten a camping ticket.”

Samuel likes to keep busy by engineering and designing bike carts. He recently built a 6-foot-long bike cart that has a dog kennel in the back. He charges others $25 an hour to build the carts which he can quickly assemble.

He is currently working with a navigator from Sacramento Steps Forward who he met at Loaves and Fishes. The navigator is helping Samuel acquire his social security card and birth certificate.

Corey & Jackie

Corey is devoted to his Jack Russell terrier named Jackie.

“She’s my baby. I got her a year and a half ago. I kept calling the SPCA to see if they had a Jack Russell Terrier and they called me and said that they had a dog that I might be interested in. I met her and I almost started crying. I lost my other dog to cancer and meeting her was the best thing that has ever happened to me. It’s my love and joy to protect her. I would give her all of my clothes just to keep her warm.”

Corey has been homeless for a year and a half. His mom was a school teacher and his dad was a pilot. For years, he worked as a nurse.

“I’ve been coming here for a month and seven days,” he said about Loaves & Fishes.

“Sister Libby is the nicest lady in the whole world, she says that in about a month she is going to take some time off and start a bicycle ministry. I’m going to help her.”

Peggy’s new smile changed her life

Peggy Sewell’s transformation started with a cosmetic change — through Obamacare, she was able to refurbish her smile, damaged by years of meth use.

For the first time in years, she was able to smile without feeling self-conscious. Her new pearly whites inspired her to look inward and to heal what was bruised in her soul.

“I got Obamacare and my teeth and I said well now it’s time to work on the rest of me,” she said.

Peggy stopped doing drugs in 2009. When she decided to get clean, she left town to help her niece, Sunny, take care of her children in Susanville. Peggy smoked her last bit of meth en route to be with Sunny. Since then, she has quit smoking cigarettes and weed.

“I was at a crossroads and it was way past my time,” she said.  “I was at a point where I was just floating; it didn’t feel like I was living.”

On November 13th, 1979 when Peggy was driving her daughter to school, she accidentally hit a 79 year old woman who was crossing the street. The woman died after the accident.

Peggy was 24 years old. Her memories from that morning have never left her.

“I had a fix it ticket on the break light of my car,” she said. “The day before I had to drive my daughter to school, my dad asked me if I got the fix it ticket signed off by a cop and I said that I hadn’t. He told me that you just have to pull a cop over and show them your fixed lights and get them to sign off on your ticket.”

The next morning, Peggy was at a traffic light with her daughter and a cop car was stopped in front of her at the light. She was preoccupied by the cop’s presence — worried that he would stop her and see that she didn’t get her ticket signed. She had to turn left on the two lane road.

“I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t all herky-jerky so my foot was hovering over the gas and the brake and I just wanted to make sure that I got into the center lane smoothly,” she said. “There was shade on the corner. It was close to 9:00 am in the morning. So as I entered the intersection and the crosswalk, a 79 year old lady just appeared at my windshield and I said, ‘Oh my God!’ and my daughter panicked. I was afraid to slam on my breaks because I didn’t want to throw her to the street. I just coasted for about three houses and she just slid off of my car and her head hit the street. I didn’t hit her; it just felt like we collided.”

Peggy had to go to jail because she never got her fix-it ticket signed. After getting out of jail, Peggy called the hospital multiple times to check on the woman. Four hours after her last attempt to learn about the woman’s condition, the hospital staff told her that the woman “had expired.”

“I’ve been dealing with that since November 13th, 1979,” Peggy said. “I have a very strong feeling that this is one of the things in my life that has kept me on drugs for so long. I would just stay self-medicated and then Obamacare saved my life. If not for Obamacare, I wouldn’t have been able to take care of my teeth. I wouldn’t have been able to get a therapist. But, now, I have great teeth and have grown immensely. I have no desire to do drugs, but I have a strong desire to find out what I want to be when I grow up. It’s time, I’m 61 years old.”

After taking care of her niece’s children, Peggy couch surfed and saw a therapist who recommended that she enroll in a course at Women’s Empowerment.

Lisa Culp, the executive director of Women’s Empowerment, suggested that Peggy try to live at Sister Nora’s place, a long-term shelter for women with a history of trauma and mental and physical illness operated by Loaves & Fishes. Culp got Peggy in touch with Tricia Nelson, the director of Sister Nora’s place who then arranged for Peggy to meet with Vince Gallo, the director of Genesis who approves the intake for residents of Sister Nora’s place. Genesis is Loaves & Fishes mental health program and offers free counseling, group therapy and social work services.

Peggy was accepted into Sister Nora’s Place and she has been a resident at Sister Nora’s for almost a year.

The living room at Sister Nora’s Place.

“Sister Nora’s place is a very secure, warm and comfortable place,” she said. “I’m never worried about what is going to happen tomorrow when I am there. Sister Nora’s is drug and alcohol free so it’s a wonderful thing because we are all in the same place – trying to be clean and be good to ourselves.”

“I call Sister Nora’s Place a program because shelter just seems so sad and I am not sad there,” she said. “I’ve grown leaps and bounds since I’ve been there.”

Sister Nora’s place is adorned with artwork, photos, personal mementos and communal spaces.

The Sister Nora’s Dining Room — every night volunteers from the community bring and cook dinner for the residents and guests of Sister Nora’s.

On the second floor, long-term residents sleep in cubicles with a closet, twin-sized bed and set of drawers. Short-term residents sleep in the Hope room which is located on the first floor and furnished with three beds.

Peggy’s bedroom.

“We are all sisters,” Peggy said of her fellow residents at Sister Nora’s. “In the year that I’ve been at Sister Nora’s, we all get along. Of course, sometimes we get on each other’s nerves like old married couples. We are a great support group. I am the crier of the group so if something seems a little emotional everyone will look at me and offer me Kleenex.”

Hope Room where temporary guests of Sister Nora’s sleep.

Peggy frequents Genesis for therapy with Director Vince Gallo.

“Vince has helped me grow immensely since I’ve started to see him,” she said. “He pointed out to me – not that I didn’t know that I was holding onto something that I shouldn’t have been – that there is a name for what I’m doing it’s called OOCD – primarily obsessional obsessive compulsive disorder and I’ve been basically ruminating on 1979. I just keep playing it over and over again in my mind and it’s not going away. It will probably never go away.”

Now that she isn’t on drugs, Peggy’s memories of the accident are stronger, but with the support of Sister Nora’s Place and Genesis, Peggy feels stronger too.

The Sister Nora’s community room (where coffee is brewed and snacks are shared).

Each weekday, she works from 8 am to 9 am at the Loaves & Fishes Welcoming Center and often works on an on-call basis in the afternoon.

“I love it because I am being helpful,” she said. “I’m 61 years old so it is not too strenuous and I could do it for many, many years and still be able to come here and enjoy what I’m doing because no two hours are alike.”

As the receptionist for the Welcoming Center, Peggy fields calls from donors, volunteers and people experiencing homelessness in need of resources.

“This job has given me a purpose and being here [at Loaves & Fishes] has made me humble,” she said. “Last year at this time, I never would have seen myself here. My niece comes and picks me up and she says, ‘It makes me sad every time that I come pick you up from here.’ So I brought her in and gave her a tour of Sister Nora’s Place. She then understood how warm and homey it is inside. When people see my name tag, I feel like I am a part of the Loaves & Fishes family.”

5 O’clock on North C Street

5 o’clock on North C Street is very different from what one might imagine. It’s so quiet, a quiet that is not familiar to this campus during operating hours. There are people set up in random spots, drinking water or smoking. Sometimes they are chatting but most often there are blank stares, I can’t help but wonder if those blank stares and slow movements are physical laments. Small acts of crying out about injustice.

On Friday all I wanted was to get home. I was tired and as I packed up my things I was a little grateful that the street would be so quiet that I could just walk to my car and drive off without incident.

What I should know by now, nearly 3 years into employment on North C Street, is that if you ever think something will be incident free, you are wrong.

I opened my car door and heard, “Hey! Hey! You! Hey!”

It was a familiar voice, Alicia. I just love Alicia, she’s funny and she’s beautiful and, she is living with severe mental illness.

Alicia walks up and down North C Street every day in layers of clothing that are so incredibly dirty. Alicia has not showered in months and it’s obvious. Alicia can’t hold a linear conversation for too long without talking to people I can’t see or cursing about something.

“Hey, Alicia. What’s up?”

“Is my son in there?”

“In where? In Maryhouse?”

“Shut up! Are you open? I need to go in there.”

“No, my dear, we close at 2:45.”

“Well, what the $#&* time is it?”

“It’ 5 o’clock, we haven’t been open in quite a bit. Your son isn’t in Maryhouse, I was the last one in the building.”

“I told him to wait for me. I told him I would be right back.”

“I’m sorry, Alicia.”

She was holding cheap smokes, her nails were black underneath. She would scratch her head and look right through me as I spoke.

She walked off cursing at someone or something.

We know part of Alicia’s story but even more, we know her.

We care about her and these moments are so hard but we try to find glimmers of beauty in the dark.