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

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.”

The Kindness Cantina

The Kindness Cantina

In the emergency room of Dignity Health’s Methodist Hospital, in South Sacramento, ordinary snacks serve a noble cause. Caz Sliwa, a registered nurse, operates Kindness Cantina, which provides hospital staff with soda, coffee, chips and the opportunity to give back to their homeless neighbors for just a dollar. He has volunteered at Loaves & Fishes for the past three years.

Sliwa stocks and maintains the venue that buys a monthly nutritious breakfast served by him and fellow emergency room employees to the guests of Friendship Park. Sliwa’s manager came up with the idea for Kindness Cantina after the hospital did away with all of its vending machines, leaving the staff without an outlet for snacking pleasures.

The Kindness Cantina, stationed in the staff break room, operates through the honor system: patrons fork over a buck for each snack purchased.

“We supply potato chips, Doritos, candy and cans of soda, and it is great for our staff and especially our nighttime staff to have the opportunity to buy snacks because in the middle of the night, they can’t go anywhere to get food,” Sliwa said.

The proceeds afford a nutritious breakfast for guests of Friendship Park, including hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and homemade oatmeal topped with brown sugar, raisins and milk. The morning meal serves about 300 and costs about $550 to put together.

Sliwa and his co-workers also bring survival supplies from the hospital to Friendship Park, such blankets, inflatable mattresses and socks.

A Loaves & Fishes sock donation bag stationed in the hopsital.

The best part about volunteering, Sliwa says, is being able to make a difference in the lives of those who are experiencing homelessness. “Many of us are nurses; and that’s why we became nurses, because we like to help people,” he said.

“We set our breakfast up so that everything that we do is portable – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a baggie is going to last a long time and we make hardboiled eggs so that they can eat those anytime of the day,” Sliwa said. “I’ve heard people say that this is great that we have dinner for tonight.”

Though the group only serves the breakfast once a month, the Kindness Cantina provides Methodist Hospital staff the opportunity to give back 365 days a year.

“For us, the breakfast program is really a daily thing at Methodist Hopsital to draw people to support Loaves & Fishes,” Sliwa said. “I have one guy who told me that he never thought that he would pay $50 a month for peanut M&Ms, but because he knows where the money is going; he drops a $20 bill in the money bucket for Kindness Cantina and will take out several packages of peanut M&Ms over the course of a week.”

The struggle to find a public bathroom

Each day, guests at Loaves & Fishes must walk miles to access public restroom — and sometimes are forced to surrender to nature’s call outdoors.

This daily struggle for the homeless is dehumanizing, and also a public health issue, with tuberculosis, meningitis and diarrheal diseases running rampant.

In 2011, a United Nations expert on safe drinking water and sanitation who visited a homeless encampment along the Sacramento River was outraged by the lack of sanitation facilities, noting, “The criminalization of public urination and defecation combined with a lack of public toilets leaves homeless people in desperate situations without alternatives.”

According to U.N. Standards every refugee camp should have one bathroom per twenty people. But, homeless encampments and public spaces are bathroom desserts. In Los Angeles, Skid Row’s population rests at just over 1000, but there are only nine restrooms that provide relief to the homeless community.

Sacramento’s recent point in time count concluded that there are nearly 4,000 people sleeping outside. But, many argue that the count under-represents Sacramento’s homeless population by not taking into account homeless families who often sleep on friends’ couches or in hotels rather than under the night sky where the count is held. As well, the count pales in comparison to 13,245 people who are documented as homeless and participate in a CalFresh program which allows them to use their food-assistance at participating restaurants.

Each day, nearly 600 guests rely on the toilets of Loaves & Fishes., which are maintained by staffers.

Key to this success of any restroom is toilet paper, which has been donated in generous abundance by the community over the years.

Loaves & Fishes’ annual toilet paper drive this month envisions the donation of 100,000 rolls of toilet paper, which will sustain the campus throughout the year, thus fulfilling our mission to “provide an oasis of welcome, safety, and cleanliness for homeless men, women and children seeking survival services.” Too, the rolls will help supply other Sacramento nonprofits.

To learn more about the struggle for public restrooms Check out these articles:

A SNR story profiling Loaves & Fishes guests who struggle each day to find bathrooms:

Joan Burke, Loaves & Fishes’ advocacy director, believes the city could save money on repairs to its public toilets by hiring a staff person to oversee the operation and maintain order. Last year, as part of a Bathroom coalition, Burke leaned on Councilman Jeff Harris to provide a public bathroom in the River District, – where much of Sacramento’s homeless population lives. The bathrooms featured receptacles for pet waste and used needles, air-conditioning and were staffed by an attendant who helped improve public safety.  But the facilities — planned as a temporary installation — are no longer there.

On Los Angeles’ skid row, there are nine bathrooms that service 1,000 people. As a result defecation and urination in the streets increase the risk that people who live along skid row will contract tuberculous, meningitis and diarrheal disease. Public restrooms should be a human right.

Check out this great design for a public bathroom created and piloted in Portland, Ore.

Reba: a survivor, chocked-full of motherly wisdom

Many Maryhouse guests go to Reba when they are in need of someone to talk to.

“They call me Mama Reba,” Reba said. “They come to me to talk and I listen. If they ask for advice, I give suggestions. I’m very spiritual. I have the spirit of God in me and I take that seriously and so do they. Sometimes I look into their eyes and hold their hands and let them know that they are beautiful and to smile because God loves them.”

Reba has experienced homelessness for almost a year.

To Reba, Maryhouse is a beacon of safety. Here, she is able to access a warm shower, hygiene products and clothing.

“I love being able to talk to all of the staff – Miss Debbie, Shannon, Judy, Hailey, Marlena, Ella and Kaylee,” she said. “I love talking to all of the ladies and having them watch out for me.”

“People don’t respect a woman who is homeless in any capacity,” Reba said. “Society expects women to know how to do everything, but being on the streets is really hard. It’s hard to find a place to sleep, to find a place to eat and to find a bathroom to use. The simple things are hard.”

She said that women experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault and often go about their days in a state of constant vigilance. They sleep with one eye open —  steeped in fear.

“I’ve been fortunate and I have been blessed because I have warriors and angels who protect me,” Reba said.

According to Reba, women experiencing homelessness who are physically or mentally disabled are extremely vulnerable on the streets. Their small assortment of personal belongings including their money, ids, clothes, cell phones, food stamps and mementos are often stolen from them.

“I see a lot of things that make my heart bleed,” she said. “People don’t have to be mean to us, but they are. They are mean to us because of the way we dress and sometimes the way we speak. It’s hard to see people get spit on or cussed out. They don’t know what we go through to get from point A to point B. If you don’t have money to get on the bus or take a taxi, then you have to jump on the train to get where you need to go and if you don’t have your ticket, you get a ticket. If people would be generous enough to pay for a packet of bus passes and drop them off at Maryhouse that would help a lot. It would help us go to doctors appointments, go to the grocery store or see our kids.”

At Loaves, Reba can get breakfast and lunch as well as new clothes each week.

“I don’t have to ask for food,” she said. “I don’t have to ask for clothes and during the day, I don’t have to ask for protection and I can lay my head down at night and know I am very protected by God and good street people.”

“Loaves & Fishes is a blessing,” Reba said. “It’s how Jesus started – feeding the people — and for Loaves & Fishes to be named after that is a beacon of light to me. It is so important for people who are hungry to spend the day here and to get whatever supplies they need and help as far as housing advocacy, food and mental health services.”

Before she started to experience homelessness, Reba worked as an executive assistant in Dallas, Texas and lived with her daughter and two grandchildren. Her dream is to live with them again.

“You can’t take what you have for granted because you can be one paycheck away from being out here and if you are not the kind of person who can adjust to change, you won’t make it,” she said. “You have to be able to adjust to change.”

Fathers are homeless too

In honor of Father’s Day, Loaves & Fishes celebrated its guests who are fathers.

Gail Filter, Doug Winter and Theodore Goodwin captured stunning pictures of Loves & Fishes guests and provided them with two copies of their likeness — one to keep and one to send to their loved ones. (Keep scrolling to see their beautiful portraits).

Joe Walker livened up Friendship park with his piano playing and singing. And, staff and volunteers provided guests with cards to send to their dads and children.

“It is such a privilege to be able to recognize these men who perhaps haven’t been in contact with their family for years,” Hannah Ozanian, the Director of Friendship Park said. “You see it in their eyes when you elevate them and ask them to get their picture taken professionally. It is such an honor for them to realize that they deserve to have their picture taken as much as any other father.”

Many guests at Loaves & Fishes are estranged from their children because they’ve been surviving on the streets for so long. And many serve as fathers to those who are young and vulnerable and also experiencing homelessness.

“Father’s Day is an opportunity is to be with our guests who cannot reach out to their family and to make them feel as if they are family,” Goerge Kohrummel, the assistant director of Friendship Park said. “Our guests get to share their day and their thoughts with each other.”

Check out these pictures of our guests who we are so lucky to say belong to our family at Loaves & Fishes:

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Jerry Ryle, Dining Room and Jail Visitation Volunteer

At over six feet tall, Jerry Ryle’s deep voice has a slight Irish lilt. Now, a retired priest, he grew up in the Land Park neighborhood of Sacramento. At the time, the neighborhood was composed of working class families and Sacramento was a small city – with a population of just 240,000 people.

“Back then no one locked their doors,” he said. “I always wanted be a soda jerk at Vic’s Ice Cream Shop. They had the best ice cream.”

Jerry never got the job, but he worked as a bag boy at the Arata Brothers grocery store next to his family’s bar, the Irish Tavern.

“Oak Park was heavily Irish and then it was mostly black and now it’s getting gentrified,” he said.

Jerry entered the seminary when he was a freshman in high school. Twelve years later, he finished his studies and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Sacramento.

His first assignment was at St. Patrick’s in Grass Valley – a community rich in California Gold Rush history. He then taught at St. Francis High School. Following that, he spent two and a half years at The Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux, a Cistercian farming monastery nestled in the northern Sacramento valley. Though Jerry was attracted to the communal monastic life, he realized that his true vocation was in the parish community. He loves people and savors listening to the stories of their lives.

After leaving the monastery he was sent for several years to St. Philomene’s Church in Sacramento. He then was entitled to a new sabbatical year which he spent at the University of California in Berkeley. There he pursued studies in medieval European history. After this, he served as an assistant pastor at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Vallejo. From St Catherine’s he was sent to St. Lawrence the Martyr Church, located in the neighborhood of North Highlands. There he was finally made a pastor.

During Jerry’s 14 year tenure at St. Lawrence, three homes near to the church blew up in meth lab explosions and the church’s glass tower was shattered with gunshots on three different occasions.

Once, a lover’s quarrel occurred right across the street from church after evening mass. The victim of the shooting crawled over to the church asking for help. Jerry left his parishioners to meet the man outside  so that he didn’t bring the crossfire to the congregation.  Two parishioners — Mary, a nurse and Carol, a PE teacher — came with Jerry to help the man before an ambulance arrived.

“Mary automatically took off her white wool coat and made a pillow for his head and I thought that was the sweetest thing,” Jerry said.

The man survived, but it took over a year for the shooting to come to trial.

“It was just another day in North Highlands,” Jerry said.

Because North Highlands had an emerging Mexican population, Jerry decided to study Spanish for two months in Cuernavaca, Mexico to be able to reach out to new parishioners.

But after his schooling in Mexico, the Diocese transferred him to the heavily Spanish speaking parish of St. Christopher’s in Galt. In the rural and predominantly Mexican farming community, Jerry says that he gradually learned conversational Spanish. It took a year for him to become oriented to the culture of the vineyards and the dairies. But, once he was welcomed into the community’s Mexican culture, Jerry said that Galt became a dream come true.

As a retiree, Jerry lives in Campus Commons, and is an avid reader. He enjoys cooking and having friends over for dinner. His favorite dishes include chicken Provencal and pasta Bolognese.

On Tuesdays, he volunteers in the Loaves & Fishes dining room and performs food prep from 6:30 to 10 AM. After that, he volunteers with the Jail Visitation program.

For the past year and two months, he has visited a man named Robert in the Sacramento county jail.

Though Robert spent over a year in solitary he has yet to receive a hearing. He is a poet, an artist and a committed Christian. Robert has come to know God and Jesus Christ through his bible study while in jail.

“You listen, but you also share,” Jerry said about his time visiting Robert.

Jerry has sent Robert paperback books to read including an inspirational book about the lives of saints and a book about colored pencil drawing techniques, recommended to Robert by another inmate.

Robert has shared his artistic talents with Jerry sending him and his family members some of the greeting cards he has designed.

A Mother’s Day card that Robert designed for Jerry’s niece.

Jerry says that the experience of visiting Robert in the jail has taught him that we are built to encounter one another and learn the healing power of love.

A meditation on Friendship Park from the Sacramento County Jail

Robert, a guest at Loaves & Fishes, has been in the Sacramento County Jail for the past year and two months. He is a poet and an artist. He wrote and dedicated this poem to Friendship Park on June 22nd, 2016:

A Place to Be, To Meet a Friend,

Broken Hearts, That Need to Mend.

An Empty Stomach and a Lonely Heart

There’s Always a Friend at Friendship Park.

A Place to Feel Like You’re at Home

At Loaves & Fishes, You’re Never Alone.

Lend a Hand and Offer Cheer

For Loaves & Fishes, is Always Here.

Maryhouse’s Mother’s Day Celebration

On May 20th. Maryhouse celebrated mother’s day.

The hospitality shelter’s Mother’s Day brunch was hosted by the National Charity League, a national philanthropic organization which aims to cultivate mother-daughter relationships through community service, leadership development and cultural experiences.

The celebration which took place in the garden behind Maryhouse was especially sweet for the guests of Maryhouse who often exist in spaces that are traumatic and full of crisis. At the brunch, guests had the opportunity to slowdown and savor the simple indulgence of a celebration — a toast to their roles as mothers, sisters, daughters and friends. They were greeted with corsages and treated to a delectable feast composed of french toast casserole, egg casserole, buttery croissants, bacon, muffins, cupcakes and fresh sliced fruit.

They were waited on by staff and volunteers.

“At our mother’s day celebration, our guests are just generally treated like the wonderful women that they are,” Shannon Stevens, the director of Maryhouse said. “It is nice to have a day where our only job is to be present in a celebratory manner. We wait on guests, laugh and tell stories. Unlike routine days, when we are doing more intervention, the brunch is a real chance to slow down and enjoy everyone around us. It’s also incredible to have the opportunity to recognize the worthiness and radiance of our guests.”

The guests’ portraits were taken and they received gift bags with sunglasses, body spray, make up and a gift card.

“This is amazing! I’ve never been treated like a princess before,” one guest said.

Volunteers from the National Charity League provided a wonderful Mother’s Day feast for the guests of Maryhouse.

Friendship Park Breakfast Recipe

Each weekday at 7:00 am, coffee is served to the about 300 guests in Friendship Park.

Everyday, Friendship park powers through 60 gallons of Folgers coffee, 10 lbs of sugar and 10 lbs of powdered cream.

At 7:30 am, volunteers start serving breakfast to the guests.

Over the past year and a half, more than 40 different volunteer groups have come together to serve over 45,000 meals. The groups prepare bagged breakfasts before coming to Friendship park which often include oatmeal, sandwiches, fruit, bagels and breakfast rolls. Today about 270 hard boiled eggs were distributed in less than an hour.

It is a smooth and efficient operation thanks to the Loaves & Fishes staff who distribute breakfast tickets and keep the line moving. A special thanks to Elk Grove Resistance and Mercy Hospital Emergency Room volunteers who allowed me to shoot behind the lines. Great folks doing a great thing.