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

A Tale of Two Communities

“The greatest suffering is being lonely, feeling unloved, having no one. I have come more and more to realize that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience.” Mother Teresa

This is a Thanksgiving story about two communities: Sacramento’s homeless community, what I call “Second City;” and, Loaves & Fishes, a sanctuary for homeless men, women, and children seeking survival services. Second City is where poverty, loneliness, fear and despair are found. Loaves & Fishes is where Sacramento’s homeless are welcomed and treated as wanted guests.

November 21, 2017. I am at Loaves & Fishes to shoot the Sacramento Blues Society Thanksgiving concert in Friendship Park. Vocalist Val Starr opens with “We’re here to take the blues away.” Today, more than 700 homeless Loaves & Fishes’ guests will be fed and entertained.

No doubt about it. Today is special. It is what Val Starr says it is, “you listen to the blues to get rid of the blues.” The images below evidence the magic of the blues cutting through “the worst disease that any human being can ever experience.” For me this is a fun time and a time to be thankful. I get to listen to great music and capture images of Loaves & Fishes staff, volunteers, musicians, and homeless guests enjoying themselves.

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.”