IT'S NOON ON A SUNNY MONDAY IN SACRAMENTO, AND LEROY CHATFIELD is watching the daily lunch line grow. Snaking around a bubbling terra-cotta fountain in a small courtyard is a mixed multitude—Vietnam veterans, kids, men in wheelchairs, people of all races—each grasping a ticket to be exchanged for a plate of broccoli casserole and ham. "What's the count today, Mr. Banks?" Chatfield asks a fellow worker. "One thousand eighty-two," comes the answer.

It's just another day at Loaves & Fishes, the charity that in a decade under Chatfield, 62, has grown from a small soup kitchen to a three-acre compound with a shelter for homeless women and children, a school, a free medical clinic and an annual budget of $1.6 million in contributions. Having served 257,000 poor and homeless people last year, it would seem to be the kind of charity any city would be proud to call its own. Not Sacramento. That very success has put Loaves & Fishes at the center of a bitter dispute dividing the residents of California's capital. Responding to escalating complaints from the organization's neighbors—in a gritty industrial district near downtown, where upscale offices are slated for development—the city filed suit against Loaves & Fishes in January, calling the charity a public nuisance and seeking to curb its services drastically. "We all have our missions," says city councilman Steve Cohn, 43, who instigated the suit, "but they need to cooperate with us in a way that lessens the impact on the surrounding neighborhood." To Chatfield, the center's executive director, who has spent a lifetime helping the poor, the suit is outrageous. "Who would ever believe that a city could sue a charity that's trying to help people?" he asks. Last March, Loaves & Fishes counter sued, charging violation of the First Amendment right of freedom of religion.

What has made the dispute all the more troubling is that the number of homeless people in Sacramento may be on the rise. This year, as federal welfare reform takes effect, Sacramento must halt public assistance to 24,000 local families. "A thousand sounds like a lot," says Chatfield of the people the charity feeds daily, "but compared to what's coming down, it's a drop in the bucket."

Chatfield, a former Christian Brother, labor activist and real estate developer, thought he had found his calling when he took over the operation in 1987. "All the things I have learned in other careers have come together in this particular work," he says. Loaves & Fishes had been feeding 175 people a day out of a skid-row bar. Under Chatfield's leadership it has grown to encompass a wide array of services, including a drop-in center for runaway teenagers, a job-referral service and a drug-rehabilitation center.

One beneficiary of the shelter's good works is a 40-year-old African-American who wished to be identified only as P.W. "It's thanks to Loaves & Fishes that I'm alive," he says. "I was homeless in the Bay Area for years [but] I just got a job working in a warehouse at JCPenney." Among other services, P.W. credits Loaves & Fishes' job-placement resource center for helping him turn his life around.

Such heartwarming tales are less noticeable to the charity's neighbors than the other factor that has accompanied its success: a growing homeless population that a few locals would rather see in someone else's backyard. "Loaves & Fishes is a big pain," says Kathleen Rivers. Two years ago she erected a wrought-iron fence in front of her family's fastener business across the street from the compound to ward off the homeless people who would sleep in the company's doorway. "There are customers who will not come down here anymore," she adds.

A 1995 city investigation, spurred by such complaints, found that Loaves & Fishes lacked special-use permits for some of its expansion. After protracted negotiations, the city demanded that the charity make changes, including reducing the number of meals served and eliminating Sunday meals altogether. After talks broke down last October, Cohn—who is rumored to be planning to run for mayor in 2000—decided it was time to take action. The city council voted 6-2 to sue. Mayor Joe Serna Jr., who opposed the suit, says it misses the point. "We need to resolve how these people should be taken care of," he says.

Indeed, caring for the poor has been a lifelong concern of Chatfield's. The son of a rice-farm manager and his homemaker wife in Colusa County, 50 miles north of Sacramento, he was inspired by a teacher at his Catholic high school to join a monastery. He held a series of jobs teaching impoverished children; then in 1963 he met Cesar Chavez and left the order to work with the farmworkers' leader for 10 years as a union organizer. He went on to become a political strategist—serving as an aide to former California Gov. Jerry Brown—and, briefly, a real estate developer. "It wasn't for me," he says of his detour into business. "I wanted to get back where I belonged."

His wife of 31 years, Bonnie, now 55 and a Realtor (with whom he has five daughters), was one of the founders of Loaves & Fishes in 1983. Four years later, Chatfield began to help out with paperwork. When asked to stay on as director, he realized the charity would be his life's calling. "For me it's very clean work," says Chatfield, who earns a $48,000 salary. "Very simple, very direct, very humble."

Lately, of course, it has also become very controversial. But that has not made Chatfield back down. "Did I create homelessness? No," he says. "I'm not trying to suggest there isn't a problem with homelessness in Sacramento." Cohn says the suit would be dropped if Chatfield and his group would simply cooperate by cutting back. "The city is saying enough is enough," he says. Yet even if the city and shelter can settle their dispute, a larger crisis looms as more residents find themselves cut off from public assistance. "The problem is not going to become easier for us," says Mayor Serna. "It's going to become more difficult."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
GABRIELLE SAVERI in Sacramento

  • Contributors:
  • Gabrielle Saveri.