He’s leaving home

After 20 years of waiting for the rising tide to lift all boats, Tim Brown is taking a break from piloting Loaves & Fishes

Tim Brown: “I’ve always thought of Ronald Reagan as the father of modern homelessness.”

Tim Brown: “I’ve always thought of Ronald Reagan as the father of modern homelessness.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

On the door of his office, near the Loaves & Fishes dining room, Executive Director Tim Brown has posted a handwritten copy of a poem by David Whyte: “Forget the news and the radio and the blurred screen. This is the time of loaves and fishes. People are hungry, and one good word is bread for a thousand.”

Since the early ’80s, Brown’s been involved with just about every homeless-services organization in Sacramento, and even helped start a few; the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee publishes a newspaper with a staff of homeless or formerly homeless people at the 12th Street and C Street site, and what is now the Sacramento Housing Alliance actively promotes local affordable housing.

As director of Loaves & Fishes for the last six years, Brown has fed many thousands. Now, he’s taking a deep breath before leaving at the end of April to travel around the country with his wife, Cecile Martin, who’s retiring as assistant director of the California Energy Commission.

SN&R: Let’s start with how you got here.

Tim Brown: I moved to Sacramento in 1982 to go to graduate school in social work at Sac State. … ’83 was when I first met Dan and Chris [Delany], and ’83 is when they started Loaves & Fishes. … There were very few shelter beds back in those days. And it’s when homelessness was really growing. It was mostly single men, not so many women involved, or families even.

Was the population really very different?

Well, it grew rapidly from about ’82 to ’88 or so. And it coincided with the Reagan administration cutting the federal housing budget by 80 percent, cutting about 300,000 people off disability. Many of those people ended up homeless with mental-health issues. Frankly, I’ve always thought of Ronald Reagan as the father of modern homelessness.

When did you join Loaves & Fishes?

Not until ’99. … I was working in mental health and doing housing and homeless stuff as a volunteer on the side between ’89 and ’99. At the time, I was actually working at UC Davis Medical Center as the manager of the psychiatry clinic there. … And Dan Delany called me and said, “You know, you ought to apply.” … This seemed like the job I’d been sort of preparing my life to do. … And it was in the late ’90s when Loaves & Fishes had the run-in with the city, and [they] sued each other, and there was a lot of not always positive press about that whole thing.

And what was the issue there?

Well, the underlying issue, which was hardly ever talked about, was that we were in the end of a recession. The number of homeless people was the highest that we ever measured at Loaves & Fishes. We’ve been keeping track of the number of people, or meals, that we serve every day. And in 1995, right at the end of the big recession in the ’90s, Loaves & Fishes numbers got up over 900 people a day. That was our highest year ever.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Where are we now?

Right now, we’re at our lowest year ever. It’s right about 600 people. So, all the spikes are recessions; all the lows are economic recoveries, basically.

Has the community’s opinion about homelessness changed over the years?

In the ’70s, we had just as many people with drug and alcohol problems, we had just as many people with mental-health problems, but housing was so much more affordable that they could find housing. … I think there’s a consensus now, to some degree, that we need to have more mental-health care. Even the Bush HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] administration is pushing housing first and supportive services for what they call “chronic homeless people,” and that makes so much sense. These are longtime homeless, gravely disabled people, and 80 or 90 percent of them are retaining their housing with a little bit of help. It’s so much better for the neighborhoods, for business. It doesn’t cost any more. I think, yeah, there’s a consensus now. Locally, we’ve seen that with the “10-year plan to end chronic homelessness.” The downtown business community’s behind it. There’s just not much opposition, because we’ve tried all the other stuff, and we haven’t made any progress.

Can you quickly explain the 10-year plan and the housing-first model?

Housing first is really focused on disabled homeless people. We did a big study in ’99 in Sacramento; the county board on homelessness actually interviewed 500 homeless people, which is a huge sample. We asked them a lot of questions, and one of the most striking things we found was that 54 percent of the people were mentally or physically disabled. Two-thirds of the women had been victims of domestic violence or some kind of molest or abuse. … So, about five years ago, Darrell Steinberg, who really made it his mission as an Assembly person to tackle this issue of mental health, and especially mentally ill homeless people—partially because of his relationship with Loaves & Fishes over the years—got the state government to pass a pilot program. … Basically, a mental-health agency is given X amount of dollars per person and told you’re supposed to house and provide services to that person with a whole wraparound team of people to help. And it was limited to about 100 people initially. … Hospitalizations go way down. Jail time goes way down. Successful recovery goes up. … So, that program got expanded to other counties in the state and really basically led to Proposition 63, which was largely Darrell Steinberg’s effort to do something significant about mental-health treatment in our state. It’s going to collect something like $700 million a year for mental-health services.

How much will Loaves & Fishes get?

We don’t take any government funds, so we won’t get any money directly, but our many mentally ill guests here will surely benefit from the increase in services. … There are at least a couple of different ways you can do [housing first]. … The agency, in one model, goes out and leases up private apartments in the community, usually in clusters. You don’t concentrate it too heavily, but you rent maybe five to 10 apartments in a big complex. The social-service agency gets the money. They do the leasing, so there’s a responsible party in charge of the lease. They even have funds to fix up apartments if there are damages. So, the landlord is pretty safe in those kinds of arrangements. And you provide 24-hour response, so if one of these people does go off their medication or do something wild in the apartment—take their clothes off or something—the manager calls a social worker to come out and work with them. Almost half of what we’re proposing locally would be that kind of model. The other side, locally, is that we actually develop housing. You might even have live-in staff. … The downside with development is it takes three or four years to even get to building the units, while the leased ones you can just go out and lease. The downside with the leasing is that the rents go up with the market, which is almost always going up.

How many people are housed in these programs now?

On what they call the A.B. 2034, the Darrell Steinberg money, there’s already about 300 mentally ill people in programs. Through the HUD money, there’s probably another close to a hundred people in the last two or three years. Here at Loaves & Fishes, when the first pilot thing started with Darrell Steinberg, we saw 50 to 100 of our most chronic guests here disappear and never come back. I mean, a handful of them have come back, but most of those people were very successful, got off the streets, and we don’t see them again.

Some have grumbled that Loaves & Fishes attracts a population that can be challenging to the neighborhood. What do you say in response?

Well, there used to be a lot more. I think we’ve had some success educating people on what we do, for one thing. … If anything, I don’t think we get any credit for being a place where homeless people can come during the day that isn’t in city parks. They’re not downtown on K Street Mall; they’re not, you know, in the alleys so much during the day, because they’re here. They have a safe place to be, and they have services, showers and bathrooms— things they need. We don’t get any credit for being one of the best crime-prevention programs in the city. If people are hungry, they’re going to do petty crimes. I mean I [breaks off]. … It’s just a reality that if people are hungry, they’re going to steal.

What were you going to say?

Well, I was once—I wasn’t homeless. I got stuck out in the middle of nowhere once, and I didn’t have any money out in the desert. You know, my car broke down, and all this stuff, temporarily homeless, without anything. And I was so frustrated, I was ready to break a window or go to jail because I was hungry; I was cold. There were no shelters in those days. I came this close to breaking a window just so I could go to jail, have a roof over my head. That’s my one little 24-hour period of having that kind of feeling. I know how it can feel for people who have to do that every day, and how tempting it’s going to be to break a law just because you don’t see a lot of other options.