The new guy at Loaves & Fishes wore a crisp white shirt and navy pants as he strode through campus, nodding and smiling at weary men and women pulling rolling suitcases and pushing baby strollers filled with everything they own.
They eyed him curiously as they accepted his handshakes and warm greetings.
“I’m the new Sister Libby, although I’m a little bit taller and have a beard,” Noel Kammermann said, introducing himself to one of the hundreds of people who sleep outdoors or in shelters each night before migrating to Loaves on North C Street near downtown Sacramento. “How are you doing?”
Kammermann, 38, is the new face of Sacramento’s largest homeless services agency, succeeding Sister Libby Fernandez, the fiery, beloved nun who in June left her job as CEO to start a bicycle ministry she calls Mercy Pedalers.
Fernandez was a lightning rod, lauded by some and criticized by others for her fierce advocacy, which included noisy public protests against the city’s ban on outdoor encampments and demands for the establishment of a “Safeground” where homeless people could live with basic services, free from police interference. She was the target of criticism from neighborhood groups and businesses about trash and crime they blamed on Loaves clients. She knew the names and stories of each of her clients.
“She leaves some big shoes to fill,” Kammermann acknowledged on a recent day. “She is an icon at Loaves & Fishes. My approach will be different from hers, but I’m hoping to achieve a big impact as well.
“I want to end homelessness in Sacramento. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is the goal we have set for ourselves.”
The goal seems more daunting than ever. Each night, according to a recent census count, 3,665 people are homeless in Sacramento County. The number is 30 percent higher than it was in 2015. Mayor Darrell Steinberg has said the numbers are “a call to action,” and has committed to getting 2,000 homeless people off of the streets in the next three years. City and county officials are under pressure to work together toward a solution.
“Those numbers are really rough to hear,” said Kammermann, who in recent years has run housing programs for homeless people in the Northeast. “They are sobering.”
Kammermann comes to Sacramento with an unusual set of skills and a track record for success in helping homeless people get off of the streets, current and former colleagues said. He holds a Master’s degree in mental health counseling, and his undergraduate studies included work in psychology, education and mathematics.
“Noel is a rare blend of manager and clinician, and he’s very good at both,” said Jason Shaplen, who worked with Kammermann for more than a decade at social services agencies in New York and Connecticut. At Inspirica, the agency Shaplen now directs, Kammermann led efforts to help people find and maintain permanent housing.
“We ended homelessness among veterans, and we were on our way to ending chronic homelessness in Connecticut,” Kammermann said. “I have seen what success looks like, and I’m hoping to contribute in every way I can to make things better for as many homeless people in Sacramento as possible.”
Barely a month into his new job, Kammermann is reluctant to make bold pronouncements about specific programs or approaches he favors. He has spent his first few weeks at the helm of Loaves, he said, meeting with staff members, volunteers, political leaders and nonprofit and community groups. He is asking questions and gathering input.
“The whole experience is like drinking from a fire hose,” said Kammermann, whose folksy manner reflects his Midwestern upbringing. “It’s a lot to absorb. I haven’t even been here a month, so it doesn’t make sense to jump to big conclusions.”
Mayor Steinberg said he believes Kammermann is “the right leader for this particular time” in Sacramento. “I would like to see Loaves & Fishes, an organization that I believe is heroic, moving toward a ‘triage approach’ to ending homelessness, with a more intense focus on helping people move from the streets to permanent housing and services,” he said. “I’m hopeful that, with his background, Noel will help with that shift.”
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Collaboration among private and public agencies will be key to getting more people off of the streets, said Kammermann.
“We need to look at the entire system,” he said. “Basically it’s a matter of money and housing. We need both to solve this, and we need to work together.”
So far, Kammermann said, life in Sacramento is playing out well for him and his family. He and his wife, immigration lawyer Survi Parvattiyar, are familiar with the area, having traveled to Sacramento from time to time over the years to visit his former college roommate. The couple has two young daughters, and for now they are renting a home in Elk Grove not far from their friend and his family. Kammermann, who played soccer in college, is looking forward to taking part in some pickup games in Sacramento in the near future. But for now, he said, he has little time for anything other than work and family.
Loaves, with 80 employees and an annual budget of about $6 million, is similar in size to the housing program Kammermann managed in Connecticut, though his duties are different. Rather than helping clients deal with emotional and other issues that place them at risk for losing their housing, he will lead a team of people working to make sure people who live outdoors have food, water and basic survival gear. That underlying mission will remain, he said, though he plans to work closely with the mayor and others on housing and other issues.
Kammermann admitted that, at first blush, he was alarmed by the sheer number of “guests” who crowd the Loaves campus – 400 to 1,000 people every weekday.
“It may have been daunting for the first five minutes,” he said with a smile. “The level of need is very big. But I’m a mental health counselor by trade, and I’m very adaptable. It’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
The new CEO does plenty of face time each day with the men and women who converge on Loaves in the early morning hours for breakfast and a shower. Many of them stick around for lunch, then play cards and socialize in Friendship Park, the epicenter of the sprawling campus, until the agency shuts its gates at 3 p.m.
The dining room at Loaves was crowded on a recent day as a small army of volunteers prepared to serve up a lunch of rice and beans, salad and cornbread. Kammermann usually eats with volunteers, just before guests begin lining up for their meals.
Edwin Burton, the agency’s longtime chef, said he misses Sister Libby’s bubbly presence. “But Noel is wonderful,” he said amidst the clatter of lunch trays and pots and pans. “He’s got the heart and the passion. He fits in just right.”
The agency’s advocacy director, Joan Burke, agreed.
“Noel is highly intelligent and very, very approachable,” Burke said. “He’s humble.”
Burke sees Kammermann’s status as an outsider as a plus.
“He’s brand new to Sacramento,” she said. “He has fresh eyes. There is no history, no baggage. Sometimes, coming from a totally different setting gives you a great opportunity to look at things a little bit differently. We’re very happy to have him here.”
CEO, Loaves & Fishes
- Grew up in Charlevoix, Mich.
- Has degrees from Wabash College in Indiana and the University of Cincinnati
- Most recently worked for Inspirica, a homeless services agency based in Connecticut