The disheveled guests at Friendship Park have finished their turkey sandwiches and potato chips. They’ve had their showers, made their free phone calls, finished their appointments with addiction counselors, chatted with acquaintances and taken naps under shade trees. It is late afternoon, time to make their pilgrimage from the park at the Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex in Sacramento to nearby riverbeds, bridges, churches and doorways, where they will lay down their bedrolls and spend the night.
For 30 years, the scenario has played out at Friendship Park, the central gathering place between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. for as many as 700 homeless men and women, many of whom suffer from physical and mental disabilities and drug and alcohol problems.
Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit organization that accepts no public money, has drawn both praise and criticism over the years for offering what it describes as “basic survival services” to the homeless in an industrial zone north of downtown Sacramento. The area arguably has the region’s highest concentration of shelter beds, soup kitchens and other programs for the down and out.
Now a plan to upgrade and enlarge Friendship Park is stirring questions and controversy.
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The agency’s administrators insist that Loaves has no intention of adding programs or luring more homeless people to the sprawling complex on North C Street. But area residents are worried, nonetheless, that the project could bring more problems to residential streets and businesses that daily battle loitering, garbage and petty crime involving people who receive services at the complex.
“We don’t oppose the project,” said Patty Kleinknecht, executive director of the River District business and property owners group, which represents an area bounded roughly by the Sacramento River, the American River, Sutter’s Landing Regional Park and North C Street. “But we would like to see some kind of binding provisions for what is going to happen with it. We don’t want it to evolve into something that may not be beneficial to the whole area.”
Although the association appreciates Loaves & Fishes’ commitment to the homeless, Kleinknecht’s group said in a letter to the city’s Community Development Department, the proposed project could “result in severe health and safety impacts on the adjacent community.” Already, the letter says, the area contends with a “staggering amount of trash” tossed by Loaves’ clients, as well as human waste that has to be cleaned up.
“This is a burden adjacent property owners should not have to bear,” the letter says.
Luis Sumpter of the Alkali and Mansion Flats Historic Neighborhood Association shares those concerns. He and others are worried, he said, that the upgraded Friendship Park will result in more people and programs that could threaten development in the neighborhoods surrounding Loaves & Fishes.
“That’s what we’re all afraid of,” said Sumpter, whose organization covers an area bounded by the old Southern Pacific railyard, G Street, North Seventh and North 12th. “It seems a project like this would deepen the roots of that organization in the neighborhood. It’s laying the foundation for even more social services in our area, and we already are overburdened.”
City Councilman Steve Hansen, whose district encompasses the area, has been working with Loaves and neighborhood groups “to figure out an amicable solution,” he said last week. He acknowledged a history of bad blood between the agency and some of its opponents.
“It’s an emotional issue,” he said.
Separate bid for housing
Loaves & Fishes proposes moving Friendship Park – which currently spans about three-quarters of an acre – just north of its current location onto a 1.78-acre parcel of vacant land that the agency already owns. The project would feature gazebos, restrooms and office buildings, and would consolidate Loaves into a 4.1-acre “triangle” of land that would allow clients easier access to the agency’s constellation of services, said executive director Sister Libby Fernandez.
“We think it’s going to be good for everyone,” Fernandez said. “We are consolidating our services and actually shrinking our footprint,” she said, by preventing people from entering the complex from busy North 12th Street. On most weekdays, that street is clogged with pedestrians and bike traffic entering and leaving the complex.
The new park would have two paved entrances, on Ahern and North C streets. The dining room and programs for mental health, housing, veterans affairs and legal issues, plus bicycle storage and dog kennels, would be accessible along the park’s perimeter, according to a sketch of the project submitted to city planners.
Friendship Park’s current grounds are unpaved, posing challenges for clients who are elderly or use canes or wheelchairs, Fernandez said. “This old park is getting dilapidated,” she said, surveying the property on a recent day. “We need more hard surfaces that are even and safer.”
Fernandez said Loaves has no plans to expand its homeless services. “The number of guests coming to us has remained consistent for the past 10 years,” she said. “I don’t foresee more people coming.”
But the agency also is proposing that the land that Friendship Park currently occupies be used for construction of a permanent housing complex for people with low incomes, she said. “We would like to offer that parcel of land to an organization that would build supportive, affordable housing.”
Loaves has begun preliminary discussions about “gifting” the Friendship Park property to Mercy Housing for an apartment building that could house low-income residents and offer services such as drug counseling and family support.
“It is an idea that is very much in the early discussion phase,” said Rick Sprague of Mercy Housing. Loaves, he said, “has reached out to us and asked us to consider developing plans for supportive housing at that site.”
If that idea fails to move forward, Fernandez said, Loaves would consider placing “sleeping cabins” on the property. “That’s a second option, but it would be harder to sell to our neighbors,” she said. “Our first priority is permanent, supportive housing.”
The agency, she said, continues to search for a larger parcel of land that could serve as a safe place where homeless people could live with basic services such as water and electricity and without police interference. “We’re still very active on that, and we’re making process in identifying an appropriate parcel of land,” she said.
City wants ‘master plan’
Loaves has filed papers outlining its proposal for a new Friendship Park with the city planning division, and is requesting a conditional-use permit. If all goes the agency’s way, Fernandez said, construction could begin this summer and be completed by fall. The $2 million project would be funded with private donations, she said.
The agency has secured pro bono work for the project from architects, contractors and lawyers, including prominent Sacramento land-use attorney Tina Thomas.
Sandra Yope, senior planner for the city, said her department wants to see more details before sending the proposal to the zoning administrator for consideration.
“We can’t move forward with it until we have a complete application,” she said. Among other things, Yope said, planners want to know more about how the project might affect surrounding areas.
“There are a lot of competing concerns,” she said. “We would like to see a master plan so that we can review this in its entirety.”
Fernandez and Thomas, the attorney, said Loaves has no “master plan.”
“That stumps me,” Thomas said. “This is the plan. We’re giving up the current Friendship Park property and moving (the park) to the center of the complex. That’s it.”
The River District association has asked the city to incorporate various conditions of approval into the project. Those include a “good neighbor policy” subject to quarterly review by city code enforcement, sufficient capacity for trash disposal, more restrooms in the vicinity and a “binding obligation” to construct supportive housing at the current park site to prevent the land from remaining vacant and becoming “a hot spot for uncontrolled loitering and camping.”
Fernandez said Loaves is open to River District’s suggestions. She said supportive housing is a separate project that may happen in future years but is not part of the plan being considered by the city.
For Garren Bratcher, Friendship Park’s director and de facto security chief, the park is “a city within a city,” welcoming all who are willing to play by the rules, including bans on drugs and alcohol, loud music and violence.
“We have people from every walk of life, every religion,” he said as clients bid him goodbye for the day, heading into the streets lugging their belongings. “We have people with Ph.D.s and people who have been homeless their whole lives. They come here so they don’t have to be on the streets all day long. It’s a safe place to be, but it’s getting a little shabby.”