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Challenging Charity : Sacramento Sues Burgeoning Program for Homeless as a ‘Public Nuisance’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each day, shortly before noon, 1,000 homeless people gather at the Loaves & Fishes dining hall in downtown Sacramento, where they receive a free meal and warm smiles from volunteers who call them “guests.”

Feeding the hungry is work that usually inspires admiration. But this privately funded charity--which also offers showers, a school for homeless children and even veterinary aid for homeless people’s pets--stands accused of countless sins by a host of irate enemies.

Among those enemies is Sacramento, which last month aired its gripes against Loaves & Fishes in an extraordinary way. Astonishing advocates for the homeless across the country, the city sued the religious charity, declaring parts of its operation a “public nuisance” and demanding that it stop serving food on Sundays.

Some of the ministry’s neighbors are even more hostile. They call Loaves & Fishes a curse on the community and a magnet for hordes of homeless people who litter, trespass, deal drugs and otherwise pollute the ambience downtown.

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“They say they’re doing God’s work--feeding the hungry,” said Ray Enos, general manager of a Ford dealership near the dining room. “But in doing so, they’re thumbing their nose at the rest of us. . . . Would God approve of that?”

It is not unusual for merchants and homeowners to battle homeless aid groups over their clientele’s sometimes unpleasant impact on a neighborhood. What is rare--and perhaps unprecedented, experts say--is for a city government to press such a fight in court.

While alarmed by the lawsuit, homeless advocates say it echoes other sharp-edged approaches to homelessness that are catching on in cities stumped by what seems an intractable problem. Bans on aggressive begging exist in cities from Santa Monica to New York. An ordinance modeled after Santa Monica’s is pending before the Los Angeles City Council.

“This [lawsuit] is in the same vein,” said Catherine Bendor, staff attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington. “It’s a punitive approach, rather than something that addresses the underlying causes of homelessness.”

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With welfare reform expected to nudge more of the poor from their homes, Bendor says cities will need charities such as Loaves & Fishes to help them cope.

Officials in Sacramento do not disagree. And all sides in the battle concede that the broader question of how to help the homeless population--estimated at 10,000 countywide--will remain long after the last lawyer speaks his piece in this case.

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For now, the deep-rooted dispute amounts to one of the more bitter feuds in recent Sacramento history. After the City Council sued, letters of indignation flowed from religious leaders and the charity’s thousands of supporters, who called the legal action everything from a disgrace to a heartless sin.

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A dozen attorneys are volunteering their time to defend the ministry in court. Business and neighborhood groups, meanwhile, applaud the city’s get-tough approach, calling it long overdue.

Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna, one of two council members who opposed the lawsuit, said suing a charity that takes no government money and serves the poorest of the poor “is a dumb idea and is ugly and embarrassing for our city.”

“But what we have here is a clash of values,” Serna said. “And when you get a clash of values, it can get ugly.”

Council members who support the lawsuit say it was needed to break an impasse and compel the charity to be more sensitive to neighborhood concerns.

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“It’s really a product of frustrations,” said Councilman Steve Cohn. " . . . They put their religious mission above everything else and . . . it blinds them to the impacts they have on the surrounding area.”

Dorothy Smith, a Loaves & Fishes board member, denied that the charity ignores its neighbors, noting that the organization spends $40,000 a year to keep surrounding streets clean. She called the lawsuit a symbol of a broader societal hostility toward the poor:

“You would think the city would try to collaborate and be supportive, rather than throw obstructions in our path,” said Smith.

The lawsuit accuses Loaves & Fishes of six permit and zoning violations, most of them related to buildings in its block-long complex. The city also seeks to stop the charity from serving meals on Sundays, which it has done without specific permission since 1989.

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Even those who pressured the city to sue admit that the issues spotlighted in the lawsuit are trivial. Instead, passions seem to flare over disagreements on how best to serve the homeless and how much blame the charity bears for misbehavior on the streets.

Loaves & Fishes feeds people without demanding that they be on the road to rehabilitation. As Executive Director LeRoy Chatfield puts it, “We welcome anyone, in any state, because the Gospel does not tell us to administer some sort of means test.”

This no-questions-asked approach angers Loaves & Fishes’ critics, many of them avowed liberals active in other charities. “Doesn’t the Bible say you should work for your food?” said Johan Otto, who owns several buildings near the ministry and says he has trouble keeping tenants because of the concentration of homeless there. “There is no obligation put on these people by these do-gooders.”

Beyond such philosophical differences, those who live and do business near Loaves & Fishes say the charity’s clientele has grown too large. After the midday meal, hundreds of homeless stream through nearby neighborhoods, scaring off potential customers and causing other ripple effects, critics say.

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“It’s mayhem--far too much for our neighborhood to absorb,” said Virginia Diebel, a downtown resident. “And when we speak up, we are called coldhearted toward the poor.”

Chatfield bristles at such accusations, insisting that the charity investigates all complaints under a “good-neighbor policy” on the books since 1988. But he also believes Loaves & Fishes is unfairly faulted for troubles it should not be expected to prevent.

“Do we hold bars responsible for the things drunk people do on public sidewalks?” Chatfield said. “How about schools? Are they held accountable for the acts of students who misbehave?”

Founded in 1983 by a former priest from Los Angeles and his wife, a former nun, the ministry occupies three acres in an industrial area bordered by homes. Its annual budget of $1.6 million comes entirely from donations; a paid staff of about 40 is augmented by volunteers from 150 churches.

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Experts on the homeless praise Loaves & Fishes for its dignified treatment of the poor and the comprehensive programs it offers in one location. Cheery curtains hang in the dining room windows and fresh flowers decorate the tables. “Guests” receive meal tickets as part of a staggered seating system that spares them what Chatfield calls “the demeaning experience” of waiting in line.

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Elsewhere in the complex are an overnight shelter for women and children, mental health and medical clinics, a day job placement service and a library with 10,000 books.

“I used to think nobody cared about me or even wanted me around,” said Kami Griffin, 22, a recovering crack cocaine addict who is homeless and receiving counseling at the mental health clinic. “But here, you’re welcome. It’s a loving place.”

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In recent years, controversy has deepened over the size and management philosophy of the charity. The discovery of the zoning violations--coupled with an expansion undertaken without permits--tossed fuel on the fire.

Nearby residents have hung “no panhandling” signs in their windows as an emblem of their displeasure. One critic even calculated--and publicized--the amount of human excrement generated by those who eat the charity’s food.

Serna has pushed for mediation to resolve the dispute, but so far, those efforts have been futile, with each side blaming the other for torpedoing the process.

Father Dan Madigan, who runs the Sacramento Food Bank, has watched in grief as the fight has gone from bad to worse, “like a snowball of disagreement, rolling down a mountain.”

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“It’s ridiculous that something like this should happen in our city,” said Madigan, who finds merit in the arguments of all sides. “If we’re not careful, this will become a scandal, and Sacramento will look like a tough and mean city, which is not the truth at all.”


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