It was a Thursday morning in late September in midtown and George was missing a shoe.
It happened Wednesday night, he explained. He was sleeping in the alleyway behind the Claim Jumper restaurant when somebody stole it.
George found a sympathetic ear. He told his story to Sister Libby Fernandez as she prepared his morning coffee from the back of her adult-sized tricycle.
“That was a nice shoe, too,” said the sister, shaking her head. “Can you get down to Loaves and Fishes to get a pair of shoes?”
But it’s not that simple; George wears a size 13, and those are hard to come by.
“I wish I had a pair of shoes for you,” said Fernandez. “But anyway, I got you a snack. Do you like some cream and sugar?”
It’s the kind of scene Fernandez sees regularly. She is the founder and director of Mercy Pedalers, a nonprofit dedicated to homeless outreach.
She described Mercy Pedalers as an “experience of bringing mercy to the streets.”
“All of the Mercy Pedalers are volunteers,” said Fernandez. “They have their own bike or trike, or they go to our storage unit and they check out a trike and fill it up there.”
The group currently has 75 pedalers cycling around midtown, downtown, Oak Park, the Alhambra Corridor, Carmichael and the Arden-Arcade area.
They hand out hot cups of coffee, nutritional bars, and a variety of hygiene products.
“Pedalers can go out and serve ... 40 to 60 people in a day,” says Fernandez. “Everyone tries to do it at least once a week.”
Mission of mercy
Scott Brewer joined the Mercy Pedalers in March of 2019.
“I had to quit my job at the end of 2018 to take care of my autistic son,” said Brewer, who now works as an in-home supportive services provider for his son.
“My career was with the County of Sacramento, so I’ve always believed in helping the community at large. And since I quit that, I still wanted to help the community at large.”
He learned about Mercy Pedalers from a Facebook post and decided to contact Fernandez. She gave him an orientation, set him up with a partner, and he’s been riding ever since.
“We have two full canteens of coffee, two of hot water,” said Brewer. “We generally use the hot water for Cup o’ Noodles,” said Brewer. “Or tea or hot cocoa.”
“We kind of listen in to what they need. I’ve learned that conditioner can actually help as a shaving cream, which I never knew. Socks are always the biggest thing that they always need. ... And we’ve had a bunch donated to us, so we still have some in there to give out every time.”
Fernandez goes out every weekday morning.
She leaves her midtown apartment at 8 a.m., donning her helmet and signature blue vest before pedaling off toward K Street. From there, she cuts over to Capitol Park and Cathedral Square.
Along the way, homeless folks are waiting. Fernandez greets them by name, adding a cheerful, “Good morning, would you like a hot cup of coffee?”
She makes small talk as she stirs in the cream and sugar. “I haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks, Chris. How are you doing? ... Today’s not going to be as hot.”
“I’ve got some resources here,” she tells one person. “Tomorrow, you can go to Trinity Cathedral from 2 to 5. And then at the end of the month, Bayside has a clinic where they give out a lot of freebies, OK?”
“Each person is an individual and each person has ... different circumstances,” says Fernandez. “But some of the common themes are, many do have mental illness. Many do have addictions ... Everyone is such an individual that you’ve got to have a variety of opportunities and choices.”
Building a movement
Fernandez has long been a fixture in Sacramento, serving as executive director of Loaves and Fishes until 2017.
“I completed 20 years there,” she says. “When I was reflecting, I thought, ‘Well, it’s a good time to maybe do something different.’”
She remembers trying to figure out what she’d do next. “Once I decided it was time for me to go, then I had to ask, ‘Well, what do I want to do?’”
“Being a Sister of Mercy, there are so many opportunities. I could have been assigned anywhere.”
“I thought, ‘I want to stay closer to home,’” remembers Fernandez, adding that her parents live in Sacramento. “I’m a social worker, and I like serving our homeless ... and I like biking. So I kind of put it all together.”
It took about six months to prepare the group, including buying vests and Mercy Pedaler flags. Along the way, she recruited about a dozen volunteers. On September 1, 2017, the group gathered in Cesar Chavez Plaza for a trial run.
A blessing was said, and then the volunteers split up, pedaling out by themselves into the downtown area.
“We came back in an hour and shared that experience,” said Fernandez. “It was overwhelmingly a great experience.”
Mercy Pedalers recently celebrated its second anniversary.
She hopes the group continues to expand. There are more plenty of people that need size 13 shoes or just a cup of coffee with some humanity behind it.
“The more pedalers that are out there, the more neighborhoods that can be reached,” Fernandez said. “And it can go beyond the city limits of Sacramento, it can go to different cities, different states, with the same concept of serving in your neighborhood.”