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.”

Veteran’s Day Salute

“In the aftermath, we are because they were”. R.J. Heller

Gale Filter, a volunteer at Loaves & Fishes is an air force veteran and a retired environmental prosecutor and educator. He believes that photography provides a powerful means to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and that in the eyes of many who experience homelessness, one finds the “homes of silent prayers” to quote Alfred Tennyson.  

November 10, 2017. I am at Loaves & Fishes to photograph and honor those veterans who served our country. I can’t help but think of those veterans who served honorably and have had a significant impact on my life.

To Glen, my high school football teammate. He served in Vietnam, and died of a drug overdose several years after he was discharged.

To my good friend Dan who I served with in Italy (1968-1970). Prior to his assignment in Italy Dan had served a tour in Vietnam and was in a communications trailer that was hit by a rocket. Dan was the only one who survived. He married Caroline, had two daughters and committed suicide in the early 1980s.

To Tommy (Army) and Malcolm (Marine) who were my Criminology and Political Science students at Joliet State Prison in the late 1970s. Both men were serving life sentences: Malcolm for killing a police officer during the anti-war demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968; and, Tommy for murdering another pimp.

To Robert, a highly decorated Vietnam war veteran, who I prosecuted for killing his girlfriend. Robert is currently serving his time in a California prison.

To all of those homeless veterans who I regularly encounter as a Mercy Pedaler on Sacramento streets. You deserve better. There should be no homeless veterans.

To my good friends and photographer buddies Tom (Army) and Robert (Navy), who still stand tall and remain true coffee warriors.

To three generations of Filters (my dad, daughter and myself) who served in the Air Force. I did not learn that my father was awarded the Silver Star in WW II until after he died.

Thank you. I am because you were.

Gale Filter, USAF (1966-1970)

One City, One County, One Plan

Tuesday afternoon, the County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to use $44 million from their Mental Health Service Act funding over the next three year as a means to partner with the City of Sacramento in addressing homelessness. This partnership is a bold step forward.

Therefore, when we gathered with our fellow Sacramentans yesterday to participate in Hands Across I Street, the symbolic call to action transformed into a celebration of a new partnership. As hundreds of residents and elected officials lined the three blocks that connect the County Board of Supervisors building and City Hall, you could easily hear the chant: “One City, One County, One Plan!”

Gale, one of our volunteer photographers captured several images from the event, check them out below:

Dia de los Muertos

Gale Filter, a volunteer at Loaves & Fishes is an air force veteran and a retired environmental prosecutor and educator. He believes that photography provides a powerful means to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and that in the eyes of many who experience homelessness, one finds the “homes of silent prayers” to quote Alfred Tennyson.  

November 3, 2017.  I’m at Friendship Park to celebrate Dia de los Muertos.

On Dia de los Muertos, Loaves & Fishes honors the homeless guests who have departed over the past year.  The community recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience.  The departed are a part of the community, present to share the celebration with their loved ones and friends.  At Loaves and Fishes Dia de los Muertos is a day not only of celebration, but also one of reflection, joy and spirituality.

My mind keeps wandering to “Truth” who died in 2017.  I shot these images of Truth at the old Friendship Park in 2016.  Truth loved his music and the day I shot these photos he was strumming his guitar, singing the blues on a warm peaceful day in the park.  As far as I’m concerned Truth was too young to be dead.

So this is a photo tribute to Truth and the homeless who departed in 2017.  Here are some other truths to think about:

In 2016, 79 homeless people died in Sacramento County.  This is a significant increase over the  32 homeless people who died in 2002.  For homeless men, the average age of death is 49.9 years; for women, it is 47.4 years.   That’s decades younger than the 78.8-year life span for Americans.

Below are my photos from Dia de los Muertos.  I believe the presence of the departed can be felt in some of these images.

Tim and Patty

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.

Tim and Patty, a heartfelt couple who often finish each other’s sentences, spoke with me at the Loaves & Fishes library about their experiences living in Stockton, California as a homeless couple and how they came to relocate to Sacramento.

Patty began to tell me the story of how they lost many of their belongings. Caltrans, along with Stockton Police Department, did a massive clean-up in Stockton a few months back.  During the clean-up, Caltrans threw away tents, medications, and other valuable items. As Patty explained to me, certain items might not seem valuable to a person with a home, but to someone who is homeless, those items do have value and can be hard to get. Patty explained to me that this wasn’t the first “clean-up” done by Caltrans and Stockton PD and won’t be their last. As Patty speaks of their experience, Tim speaks up, “One time I was going through the alley with all my stuff on my cart in the Slough where we stayed and Caltrans wouldn’t let me out of the Slough and they said the only way I could get out of the Slough was to leave all my stuff behind.  All my belongings: 2 bikes, my cart, the dog food for our dog (a 160 pound Rottweiler) and they wouldn’t let us walk out of there.  Everyone’s stuff was just piled high.”

After this Caltrans event, Tim and Patty left Stockton and the Slough and moved up to Sacramento to live near the River, and to help out one of their children while waiting for their SSI and GA to start. Tim and Patty have extremely unique and creative ideas about how to help homeless people and their community. Patty has talked to city council, the Sacramento mayor and has spoken in other venues to try and get their message heard.

Patty looks up from the brown Formica library table where we are talking and looks me in the eye, “Most of the people out there are like us. Waiting for our SSI and certain things to happen. One minute you are way up here (she raises her slender hand above her head and makes it dance), the next minute you are living paycheck to paycheck and the next minute you are living in a tent”. Tim breaks in, “We both come from good places. I use to own houses, buy houses and flip houses and she was a secretary since she graduated high school, a legal secretary, and now we are homeless living in a tent.”

Patty chimes in, “[This is currently] by choice because we won’t live with relatives, where we have certain rules, not at our age, and that’s our own thing but when people think of homeless they think of mental health patients and mental health [care] failed a long time ago. It’s just us out there.”

Tim kicks down, his work-worn hand tapping the table, “We help out the community more than anything because if it wasn’t for us, a lot of the cans and a lot of the bottles and a lot of the other materials that people who do have homes throw out as waste.”  He’s speaking about garbage that gets tossed out on a daily basis from residential homes.  “They [people who do have homes] worry about a lot of us going through their garbage but we are going through their garbage because we know what’s in there that could be recycled and it’s not just always cans. There’s lighters, toilet paper, there are so many different things that we can recycle as a homeless person.”

Tim goes on to talk about the importance of trust, “We want more of the community to have more trust with the homeless. If they come up and ask for a job, or if they ask you ‘can I get a peach off your tree?’ or ‘can I do some yard work for you?’ at least they are not trying to take it from you. They are trying to earn it.”

Patty’s and Tim’s ideas are innovative.  “We want to start a temporary employment service that hire homeless to small business and in-home care.”  Patty is speaking of tent-care when she speaks of in-home care. She presented her ideas to a local small business association.  “The small business association loved the idea and there is so much potential [for homeless workers] to make money and to make a difference in the homeless community. There are many people who need in-home care right here in their tent and they still get SSI and why not get a [qualified and able] homeless person? This way you could pair up disabled people with health care workers, because we we’re doing it already out there, and we had a circle that we kept, very tight knit, with people who are compatible. Hey, you are homeless, and you are homeless and now we are both out here homeless [so let’s help out our homeless community].”

Patty goes on to say, “Some of them die because they need in-home care and people out here who are already homeless are out here doing it and they are not getting paid for it.”  The reality is that if they were in a home, they would be paid.  “Small businesses were asking what would work.”

Patty’s hopeful in her ideas, “Teaching people how to work in employment with skills they already know how to do, getting a contractor to let another person work under them that did it themselves before so they can get back to work. When you go back to work again, there’s nothing like making your own money when someone hands it to you, a paycheck, it gives you self-worth.  [It adds] a value to your life and you feel good and that will put you back up on top. Just that feeling alone will give you the confidence to be able to do anything.”

“I told Tim when we met one small success at a time and you’ll be able to achieve anything,” concludes Patty.