Erika D. Smith

The secret to bringing homeless people in from the cold? Just ask Sister Libby

Sister Libby Fernandez smiles during an ice cream social to celebrate her last day as executive director of Loaves & Fishes. She now runs Mercy Pedalers, a bicycle ministry staffed by a team of volunteers who go out and build relationships with homeless people.
Sister Libby Fernandez smiles during an ice cream social to celebrate her last day as executive director of Loaves & Fishes. She now runs Mercy Pedalers, a bicycle ministry staffed by a team of volunteers who go out and build relationships with homeless people.

“Hi, Sister Libby!”


Sister Libby Fernandez looked around just in time to spot a man smile as he pulled himself from the fetal position on the cold concrete. She smiled back.

By now, the former executive director of Loaves & Fishes has gotten used to being flagged down on her adult-sized tricycle, which she rides to carry out her newest ministry, Mercy Pedalers. Just after sunrise most weekday mornings, she puts on a blue vest and makes the rounds in midtown and downtown Sacramento, just as homeless people are crawling out of their sleeping bags and tents.

She brings them free, freshly brewed cups of coffee, snacks and toiletries, all crammed into a custom cabinet mounted on the back of her tricycle. But more than that, she brings them compassion and a connection to the broader world that many of us take for granted.

In response, she gets grateful hugs and sometimes tears.

On the crisp fall morning I tagged along with Fernandez, I watched one man, his skin hardened by years on the streets, break down in pained sobs.

That’s the truth about doing outreach with homeless people. There are no shortcuts. It takes patience to persuade some people to take the help they need – especially if they’ve been living outdoors for years – because building the kind of one-on-one relationship that leads to trust can happen only over time.

As a Sister of Mercy, Fernandez knows this.

But it’s a philosophy that I hope Sacramento also follows in the coming months, as the city and county begin rolling out their Whole Person Care program in earnest.

The program is designed to get homeless people out of emergency rooms, into mental health and addiction treatment and, eventually, into housing. So far, there’s a whopping $108 million available over three years to pay for it. But the funding won’t matter if the outreach doesn’t work.

At the moment, Whole Person Care is very much a work in progress, although some homeless people have already been enrolled in services. Sacramento Covered has been put in charge of outreach and case management, and it has already hired several community health workers to visit encampments with police officers and emergency rooms at the request of hospitals.

Many of the workers have training in mental health and addiction therapy, as well as social work. Others were hired because they were homeless in the past and know how to relate to people who are still living on the streets.

Either way, their job now is to know the maze of services at community clinics, hospitals and county facilities, and then guide homeless people through it.

That’s a different kind of outreach than Fernandez does – more bureaucratic science than spiritual art. But Jodi Nerell, director of Behavioral Health Integration for Sacramento Covered, says it’s also “assertive.”

“We’re going to keep coming out,” she said on Monday, looking out over a burgeoning, trash-strewn tent city in North Sacramento. “We not going to give up.”

The good news is that Sacramento Covered’s community health workers aren’t alone. In addition to Fernandez and her team of bicycle- and tricycle-based volunteers, there are already dozens of people doing outreach to homeless people across Sacramento County.

It used to be just government-funded “navigators” from Sacramento Steps Forward, walking around with blue shirts and iPads to collect basic information from homeless people. But there are also outreach teams that work for hospitals and supportive housing providers. Still others work for businesses, including Sacramento Steps Forward navigators who are under contract with the Downtown Partnership.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department also has its Homeless Outreach Teams, or HOT teams, which patrol the American River Parkway, trying, usually in vain, to convince homeless people not to camp there. And the Sacramento Police Department has “impact” teams, which respond to complaints to 311 about homeless encampments, and on rare occasion do things like take homeless people to their doctor’s appointments.

Many of the referrals for Whole Person Care have actually come from a police impact team – people like Eric Brown, a New Jersey native who said he’s been living outside for months. Officers found him in his tent in North Sacramento on Monday, caring for his dog, and referred him to Sacramento Covered.

“The silos can’t continue,” Nerell said.

Fernandez, for her part, says she works with other outreach teams all the time. On K Street, she pointed out a Downtown Partnership “guide” in a yellow shirt and waved at a Sacramento police officer. “We all know each other,” she told me.

But Sacramento is still lucky to have someone like Fernandez, who is willing to ride the same streets each morning and talk to the same chronically homeless people.

She’ll remind them what day it is – something that must be tough to remember when the days all blur together sleeping on the streets. She’ll ask them what they plan to do that day – an important way to get people to focus on what they can control in the present moment instead of all things they can’t control about being homeless.

She’ll talk about what resources are available. Is there winter sanctuary tonight? Which organization is serving food? Are there any places to do laundry?

She’ll inquire about people whom she hasn’t seen in a while, and sometimes she’ll take a picture of the men and women she meets, just in case they disappear. But most of all, she’ll listen. She gets to know people’s stories, their mental health issues, the names of their pit bulls, even how they like their coffee.

“I love her,” a homeless man told me during a Mercy Pedalers stop at St. John’s Lutheran Church. “I’d do anything for her.”

He paused to say hello to a pedestrian.

“See, I’m making contact with the civilians,” he quipped. “Sometimes they don’t like us. They ignore us, but you’ve got to try, you know?”

That goes both ways.

Loaves & Fishes hosts an ice cream social goodbye for Sister Libby at Friendship Park on Wednesday May 31, 2017.

Erika D. Smith: @Erika_D_Smith

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