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

March 04, 1997|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

"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.

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."

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."

"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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