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

March 04, 1997|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — 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.

"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."

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.

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.

"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.

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."

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