Erika D. Smith

Answering the call to ask anew: ‘How can I help you?’

The campus of Loaves & Fishes is always chaotic. It’s a tangle of human bodies, exhausted and frustrated, many of them caked with muck from sleeping in alleys and along the banks of the American River Parkway.

Men in bright orange, and sometimes yellow, safety vests direct visitors toward parking spots and away from homeless people ambling – or hobbling with a walker – down North C Street.

Tempers can flare easily here, swirling like a hurricane. But the eye of the storm, the calming presence, tends to be Sister Libby Fernandez.

The longtime executive director of Loaves & Fishes is usually standing outside, a serene smile spread across her face. People stop long enough to talk. Some laugh. Still others, those inching toward despair, just soak up her words of encouragement.

This I how I found Fernandez one sunny morning in late January, a few days after she announced that she is stepping down in June to start a “bicycle ministry” called Mercy Pedalers. The decision, she says, was an epiphany. A calling, if you will.

Run under the auspices of the Sisters of Mercy, Fernandez will work with volunteers, rolling around Sacramento’s Grid on bicycles and tricycles to connect with homeless people in need.

“At Loaves & Fishes, we’ve been doing this a long time, but you can’t serve everyone,” she said. “We serve 400 to 600 people on any given day, but there are 2,000 homeless people on the streets in Sacramento.”

The goal is to build trust over time with a population of people who are often resistant to it. It’s this barrier, exacerbated by untreated mental illness and addiction, that keeps many homeless people from accepting help even when it’s available.

Bridging that gap takes time and patience, which, as a nun, Fernandez certainly has. It’ll happen by offering a cup of coffee day after day, or passing out ponchos when it is raining. Or just lending an empathic ear. And then connecting homeless people.

“It’s ‘I trust you. I know you. How can I help you?’ 

Fernandez, 56, started at Loaves & Fishes as a volunteer in 1985. She has been executive director for 11 years, at times lobbying against city policy knowing that none of the nonprofit’s budget comes from government.

To many, she is the face of the place. They can’t imagine it without her. But, in truth, it’s a good time for Fernandez to retire. She leaves a mayor, a City Council and a county Board of Supervisors newly eager to tackle the problem of homelessness. On Tuesday, the council is holding a workshop about it. That follows a packed joint session with supervisors last month.

Still, there’s no doubt that when Fernandez leaves Loaves & Fishes, she’ll once again be doing something that local government has not been able to do with any sort of effectiveness.

Under former Mayor Kevin Johnson, Sacramento Steps Forward was formed to coordinate services between the city and county. Since then, the nonprofit’s “navigators” have worked hard at helping homeless people work the system to get help. But there are too few navigators to reach everyone and, ultimately, not enough affordable housing, which can be disheartening.

Housing is “going to take time,” Fernandez said, “but in the meantime the mission of Mercy Pedalers is to take that time and develop that trust and relationships.”

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