“You broke the contract.”

Photo taken at the rally in downtown Sacramento on Saturday, June 6, 2020.

Kimberly Jones, co-author of “I’m Not Dying With You Tonight,” presented a powerful statement addressing the source of the pain of the black community. She educates us within the historical context of the wealth acquired on the labor of black slaves and the deliberate destruction of thriving black communities. She is not shy with her grief and anger and after listening to her, one cannot be anything but compelled to take action. At the end of the video she emphasizes that the “social contract is broken” and those with the power and authority who promised to create a safe and equitable space “broke the contact.” 

I have watched this video multiple times since it was shared publicly and I am still processing the weight of that statement. Though she speaks of the black community and the stark economic disparity of poor blacks and those of other communities, I cannot help but acknowledge how this translates to our neighbors impacted by homelessness. 

The Law Enforcement Oath of Honor states: “On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for their actions. I will always uphold the constitution, my community, and the agency I serve.” I consider the events over the past weeks and fail to see how that oath has remained in practice. Donna, an unhoused neighbor interviewed on June 2, 2020, detailed her interactions with a local Sacramento law enforcement officer. Bear in mind as you watch, as of March 22, 2020, the Health Officer of the County of Sacramento ordered under the authority of California Health and Safety Code Sections 101040, 101085, and 120175, item #7, allowed those unsheltered to remain in place and to only remove in the event of an emergency and that disposal of their property is prohibited. 

“On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character or the public trust.” How does kicking and threatening an unhoused woman, an unhoused citizen, comply with this oath? A woman on the streets is incredibly vulnerable to the threat of violence towards her and this officer, who agreed under honor to uphold his community, violated her trust. Violated whatever faith she maintained for the powers meant to protect its citizens. 

Our community members impacted by homelessness are already vulnerable as they are regularly exposed to the outside elements of extreme heat and cold with no available drinkable or running water or regular access to toilets and showers. Their immune systems are compromised from living outdoors while also suffering from traumas that are not being appropriately addressed. In the face of the pandemic, they are being asked to “shelter-in-place” making it difficult  to access the services utilized to meet their basic needs. And with no door to close for the evening, there is no semblance of security. They should be able to trust “those in blue” to positively affect any situation and ensure their safety as they too are part of the community. 

What do our unhoused neighbors do when law enforcement abuses their power and fails to behave with integrity? What do they do when they have no recourse? How can we expect our unhoused neighbors to house themselves when those with power refuse to acknowledge their worth? 

“You broke the contract.” 

This Extraordinary Place

Rooftop view of Mustard Seed School cottages at sunrise.

It was early March and the rumblings of the coming pandemic had become impossible to ignore. In the Mustard Seed office, daily temperature checks had become a staple of the morning routine, and the realization that our days as a functioning school were numbered had begun to set in. One preschooler had already been sent home the day prior, and this morning another had vomited on the playground. He was quickly taken to the office to wait for his guardian, and the school day began. 

I had some free time and went to the office to print out some worksheets. I found the sick five year old huddled in a corner with a blanket, a pillow, and a book. As I was leaving to go back to my classroom, he exclaimed, “Mr. Kieran! Can you read this to me?”

“Sure!” I said. 

I took a seat on the floor next to him. Social distancing wasn’t yet commonplace, and I certainly didn’t want to disappoint him. 

“This book is called ‘Hop on Pop.’ Up pup. Pup is up,” I began. 

He inched closer to get a better look at Dr. Seuss’s illustrations. 

“Cup pup. Pup in cup.” He let out a howl. 

“Mouse house. Mouse on house.”

He laid his head on my shoulder. I kept reading. I suddenly had the feeling that I would probably never see this little boy—who had become a fixture at the school— again. At Mustard Seed, not seeing a student again can be good or bad depending on the situation. It may mean that the student has found stable shelter or housing. Or it could mean that their family has dropped off the map entirely. As it turns out, my inclination was correct. I will probably never see that child again. Thankfully, it’s because he and his guardian have found housing. Still, I can’t help but feel bittersweet when I think back to this moment, which is etched in my mind. It was the last time I felt the joy of being a teacher at Mustard Seed School.

In the two short months since I had been hired, my life had already been changed by this extraordinary place and working with children experiencing homelessness had become the great privilege of my life. When I moved to Sacramento from New Jersey two years ago, the phrase “homeless children” had barely entered my consciousness. I suppose I must have known there was such a thing as homeless children, but it had never really struck me how many families were living on the streets of America. I was told about the school at a Loaves & Fishes volunteer orientation, and a month later I was volunteering every Wednesday and becoming thoroughly addicted to the school’s unique culture of “radical hospitality.” Two months later, a position became available, and I was hired. To say I was elated would be an understatement. I had certainly never envisioned my first job in education being anything like Mustard Seed, but I was quickly welcomed into the fold by the incomparable staff who quickly began to feel more like family than co-workers. I had never been around a group of people so positive and so dedicated to doing good, and there were times where I had flashes of dread that this might all be an incredibly vivid dream. I sometimes feel like I have been searching my whole life for a place like Mustard Seed. To be able to help these amazing children and to be able to do it alongside some of the most amazing people I have ever known is a kind of dream in a way.

As my colleague Stacy Johnson has already written, since the shelter-in-place orders were implemented, we have been spending our time in the Loaves & Fishes dining room preparing and serving lunch daily for hundreds of guests and getting to know another extraordinary group of people at Loaves. The work is different, but the mission is the same: spreading love and hospitality to our homeless neighbors in Sacramento. 

I am co-running our annual summer program, which unfortunately has had to undergo a drastic overhaul due to the ongoing crisis. Normally the program includes all sorts of field trips and guest instructors, but this year we will have to limit the number of children to ten, and remain on campus the entire time. Still, with help from the community, we are determined to give these children a fun, exciting, and stimulating summer experience.

Our Student Resource Specialist Troy Bailey affectionately refers to Mustard Seed as a “hidden gem” of this city, and I agree. In fact, I am not sure whether this exact kind of place could exist anywhere but Sacramento, a city which I have quickly fallen in love with, and whose citizens always seem to be there for their neighbors in need.

I Can’t Beg the World for Change if I Cannot Do it Myself

Although we are all impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t help but feel like the guests at Loaves & Fishes are suffering the most. For our guests, their modes of survival depend on many facilities throughout the Sacramento area, but those locations are no longer available. This puts a lot of weight on the staff at Loaves & Fishes. Being a Mercy Volunteer, it took time for me to adjust to our guests and try to understand their pain. 

Although I will never be able to fully empathize with the pain of people experiencing homelessness, the world they live in (which already creates the conditions of daily struggle) has completely altered yet again. Our guests, which I often refer to as family now, don’t have the privilege or option to stay at home and still survive. Everyday some of our guests have to choose between catching a deadly virus or starving. Many of our guests don’t have a tent to stay in and feel safe, where some express never feeling safe at all. 

While Loaves & Fishes staff are doing amazing things with carrying the load of caring for the homeless population of Sacramento, I can’t help but feel like the city could be doing more. Throughout the past week, myself and some staff at Friendship Park, led by the Advocacy Director Joe Smith, have been visiting camps and talking with the homeless population. They all say no one else has been there. My question is why? 

Why has no one else bothered to stop by and care for our people? In the words of Gandhi, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” In that regard, we could all be doing more. A lot of our guests can’t understand the severity of this virus. This is due to the extreme, real fact, that many of the guests we see are impacted by mental illness and physical and intellectual disabilities. How can we simply get more guests to understand it? How can we help our guests to get tested? And how can we ensure they all get the basics of survival: water, food, and hygiene care? 

These are issues and people that I feel like no one cares about. Most days I find myself arguing with my mother because she cannot grasp how I would risk my life everyday for free. I often relay to her that I can’t beg the world for change if I cannot do it myself. 

“This Is Where I Want to Be”: Emerick Flores, Dining Room Program Director

Emerick Flores, Dining Room Program Director, joined the Sacramento Loaves & Fishes family in the beginning of March, just before the city’s shelter in place and social distancing measures were mandated due to COVID-19. Hear directly from Emerick in his interview with Janet Kuzawa, Communications & Outreach Specialist, where he shared his past experiences and what it was like to transition into the critical role of serving meals to our guests during a global pandemic. 

When did you start working at Sacramento Loaves & Fishes?

I started in March. I started three weeks before all the countywide shelter-in-place. The beginning of my fourth week we shut down the kitchen and did everything to-go; I recall it was the week of St. Patrick’s Day. 

Prior to joining Loaves & Fishes, where did you work?

I was an independent caterer as well as working at Conaway Ranch and Duck Club. During duck season I would do breakfast and lunches as well as cater events for them. I also volunteered at the VFW by supplying them with breakfast on Sundays. 

How long have you worked  in the food industry? 

I have been professionally cooking since 2009. I went to culinary school for four years; I got a Bachelor’s in Culinary Management and was able to gain fine dining experience while employed at Conaway Ranch. 

I remember having a brief conversation with you and you talked to me about starting a group home and working in social service. Can you provide a brief overview of that and what prompted you to want to offer that support to our community? 

So I graduated from Fresno State with a Bachelor’s in Criminology and I wanted to go into law enforcement or corrections. I joined the Arizona Department of Corrections in 1996 and I left in 1998. I wasn’t helping. There’s no help in that field, there’s just a lot of negativity. And so I moved back to Fresno and started working in group homes. I had no clue group homes existed. I didn’t know there were kids that didn’t have a home – it seemed unfathomable. So I started working in group homes. First I worked with adolescent sex offenders in Fresno and there was 36 adolescents throughout six homes. Working in that field, I realized they were cutting corners to reduce costs and the services weren’t being provided for the kids and that’s when I decided I wanted to do my own and get it done right. And so I moved to Stockton and opened Stockton Foundation Group Homes. We started with one home with six kids and by 2011, I had two homes with 12 kids, all wards of the court. I just wanted to give back. I wanted to do something positive. 

You mentioned initially that you wanted to be in law enforcement. What prompted that desire? Was there anything in particular about your life or any individual or mentors in your life that contributed to that initial goal? 

Both of my parents were in the military, so I lived a very structured life. I grew up all over, but primarily in Europe – Italy, Germany and England. So I had a very structured childhood. My parents were very authoritarian – that’s what I thought I wanted to do, but it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like I was helping anybody. And once I started in group homes, I realized that’s what I wanted to do. After the group homes I started cooking professionally, which I enjoyed, but I was still missing that giving part. So I started volunteering at the VFW and I would do their banquets – I was giving back. I did a year at the Salvation Army which I thought, “Hey, this is giving back. They’re doing good.” But it was very limited giving back; we only fed the 100 people that were in the shelter. If you were lucky enough to be in the shelter you got food, and if not, you didn’t get any. I peeked across the street and saw Loaves & Fishes. And I was like “Who are these people at Loaves & Fishes? What are they about?” I researched the Delany’s and their “why” and “what” and that’s when I realized, “That’s where I want to be. I want to get there.” Two years later, I saw an opening, applied and was offered a position. And I was excited. I was happy to be here. 

Now that you are on campus what have you learned about this place? What are your feelings and your sense of the campus, the people, the volunteers, our guests? 

A lot of our staff members, I noticed, they do it not for money, they do it for the heart. So at least two to three times a week, I attend the 6:45 a.m. meetings with the Friendship Park staff because that’s where I started to really understand this place. I really understood all of the unity, the team work, the goal, the mission. Those people are amazing. They’re out here on the street, they’re in the park, they care, and it keeps me motivated. 

When our services had to adjust, Mustard Seed came in and started to help serve, no kitchen experience at all. By week three, I had them cooking, “Stacy, Emily, you want to learn how to cook? We’re going to learn today.” I overheard them just two days ago saying, “I like the way this [to-go] box feels. This box feels good. I like the way these feel.” Stacy is usually stationed at the window where she offers the food to our guests and every now and then she’ll grab one and be like, “You guys, this one’s a little light” and she sends it back and they add food to it and it gets her approval. And it’s just funny because that’s how much they care about the guests – they care how much food they’re getting. 

Change – there’s a lot of change especially right now with all this going on. It doesn’t phase me – you just keep on moving. Because the main goal is to feed the people that need food and right now there’s a lot of them so we start making a lot more. Start cooking. Let’s do it.

Is there anything else you want to add about yourself, about how you feel? 

We are doing the extra 200 [meals for Sacramento Steps Forward to distribute to those sheltering in place in encampments] and it might go up a little more, and I’m excited about it. Feed as many as we can. Every Friday, I try to do a little something special for our staff that are still here. I understand that it can be exhausting and overwhelming and I want to thank them for being here. We had smoothies today and omelets a week ago and we’ll keep the surprises coming. 

The Luck of Friendship

Photo credit: Doug Winter

Richard Dobbs shares captivating stories about his years of hardship and adventure traveling across the country as we walk under the large green archway of Friendship Park. 

He speaks of working odd jobs, hopping freight trains, cooking meals over a campfire, and seeing a rare glimpse of America through the broken braces of a Union Pacific boxcar. 

The day is bright and touched with the warmth of spring as a strong wind dusts up around us. Richard recounts a lifetime of events, most of them in transit and on the move. He speaks of overcoming, thugs, and pool hall hustlers and the medical difficulties that have plagued him since childhood. 

Richard talks of fighting his way through a wake of judgment and prejudice. “I lost my jobs and housing because of my medical condition; landlords said I was a liability, and my employers would fire me. Anyways I’m old now. I could never ride the rails or sleep in hobo jungles today,” Richard says. 

His shiny white medical helmet covered in stickers show years of use and protection guarding Richard against the medical condition he overcomes daily.  

Photo credit: Doug Winter

Richard is creative and artistic; he enjoys writing too. He started painting and drawing again because Friendship Park offers an Art Day on Fridays. It’s run by Ginny, a Friendship Park volunteer.  

Richard and I step into a patch of shade outside a bungalow at Friendship Park, and Richard shares more stories with me about other people he’d traveled with like “The Oklahoma Kid,” “Big Jim,” and “Steamboat Joe.” 

I told Richard, “These stories are fascinating. If you write up your stories and make some drawings about the hobo life, I’ll publish them into a book.” 

“Are you serious?” Richard said. 

“Heck yes,” I said. 

We shook hands, and a creative partnership was forged. 

Richard saw me a week later and said, “I finished my book. It’s called Hobo Junction.” He handed me three handwritten composition books wholly filled with hobo stories and drawings. I typed up and edited Richard’s handwritten book of stories and scanned his artwork. I uploaded all of it to an online self-publishing portal and printed 25 copies. Richard sold out of the first printing of books within a week. He is a natural salesman. 

Richard and I meet up regularly now. We are working on his third book, a romance story. We had planned to have an art and book show in May of his work. We had intended to sell books, original drawings, and a new set of postcards. Richard would have read selected stories and poems from his book too. 

Then the virus hit the state of California, and the country shut down and our plans have had to change.

I think about the support system of Friendship Park, the green hats, Program Director George, and all the volunteers helping those who live outside and how important it is to help, especially now. The Park remains open, and everyone continues to assist in the face of danger. 

I hope we can look at our community leaders to be kind and reach out to those who are having a difficult time. I believe through this awful and unprecedented historical time, it can bring out the best in us. I see it at Friendship Park, and it’s an excellent example of help, support, and kindness. It was a vital asset of help and refuge to our community long before the virus locked our doors.  

I checked in with Richard yesterday, and he said, “When everything is safe, and we can go outside and meet up again, the show will go on.” 

I agreed. The show will go on. 

You can read a preview and buy Richard’s books here:

https://www.blurb.com/user/DobbsBooks

You can read the original story I wrote about Richard on my blog: 

Read about Richard and others living outside caught up in the wretched time of the COVID-19 crisis.