A Subaru packed to the rafters with sleeping bags, socks, protein bars, wool caps, scarves, dog food and more pulls over to a tent camp on 29th Street near the levee. Four women jump out of the car and start distributing hot coffee, bagels, sandwiches, apples and hard-cooked eggs to people emerging from the tents. The women are a new-age welcome wagon, bringing comfort and simple human kindness to people who live on the streets.
They are volunteers for Mercy Pedalers, a nonprofit started in 2017 by Sister Libby Fernandez, a well-known advocate for the unhoused who headed up Loaves & Fishes for 11 years. When she left that job, she came up with a new way to serve Sacramento’s most vulnerable residents. “At Loaves & Fishes, someone may have to take a bus all day just to get a hot meal and a shower,” she says. “Our concept is to go where the homeless are.”
Her idea was simple: Pedal around town on an adult trike fitted with a large, custom-made supply cabinet, delivering coffee and hygiene supplies to people on the street. Her small startup grew steadily, and by this time last year, Mercy Pedalers had 100 volunteers on trikes and in cars distributing a vast array of items.
Fernandez herself goes out on a trike five days a week, rain or shine, blazing heat or freezing cold. It takes her about two hours to complete her route, which includes J, K and L streets in downtown. “I see about 30–40 men and women,” she says. “I know most of them by name.” Other volunteers cover areas where homeless people gather in midtown, Oak Park, Carmichael, the Alhambra corridor and near the American River. With more than 5,000 people living on the streets in Sacramento County, there is plenty for them to do.
The Subaru crew goes out every Friday morning. Debbie Farano Vanderford pilots the car, careening down streets and alleys in search of people in need. Spotting someone on 21st Street, she pulls over to the curb, and her jump-seat partner, Sara Paxton, rolls down the window and calls out, “Hi, sweetheart. Would you like a cup of coffee?” When the answer is yes, the women pile out of the car and start offering stuff. “Would you like a sandwich? A bag of chips? How about a scarf? A pair of socks?”
At the 29th Street encampment, a little dog named Murphy recognizes the new arrivals and runs around them excitedly. When his owner, Chris, tells the volunteers it’s his birthday, they sing him a rousing “Happy Birthday,” and Vanderford gives him a warm hug. “You ladies take such good care of me!” he says. After two hours on the road, the women have exhausted their supplies of coffee and sandwiches, so they pack up and prepare to drive away. Raising her arms over her head in a gesture of triumph and delight, Paxton exclaims, “Gosh, what a great day!”