Same old Saint

Despite loss of government funds, Saint John’s Program for Real Change sticks to up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy

Fifteen women received plaques for completing a rehabilitation program through Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a homeless charity, during a Sept. 5 graduation ceremony.

Fifteen women received plaques for completing a rehabilitation program through Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a homeless charity, during a Sept. 5 graduation ceremony.

Photo by Deana Medina

Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a nonprofit for homeless mothers who are sober, held its fall graduation ceremony on Sept. 5, which doubled as both a fundraiser and one of the organization’s first major events since the losses of local government funding and its longtime CEO.

Moderator Rob Stewart called the graduation a “new chapter” for the 15 women who completed Saint John’s rehabilitation program, before adding, “One chapter doesn’t write the book. There are many more beautiful chapters ahead in each of your stories.”

One of the night’s highlights was keynote speaker Carrie Steinseifer Bates, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, who shared her battle with addiction. Bates, now seven-and-a-half years sober, recounted her rise to fame and eventual fall, leading to the loss of her children, home and husband.

“I have been privileged to see the world through a vantage point that few ever get to see,” she told the audience. “But I’ve also lived on hell on Earth. And I don’t want anyone I know to ever have to see what I’ve seen. And I know there’s women in this audience who’ve seen what I’ve seen.”

Bates mentioned that in high school she knew former Saint John’s CEO Michelle Steeb, who was seated in the crowd and invited Bates to speak at the ceremony.

This event is one of the first since Steeb stepped down in late April after a 12-year tenure that sometimes drew criticism for Saint John’s strict eligibility requirements. Marc Cawdrey, former chief operating officer and now interim CEO, said the criticisms arise because the program is not “suitable” for some.

“But those who have the capacity and are invested in making change and are personally ready, a program like ours … is life changing,” Cawdrey said in a phone interview. “There are others who are not ready for that. This is a clean and sober program.”

That philosophy resulted in a financial hit over the last two years when the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors redirected nearly $1 million in funding to nonprofits that provide “low-barrier” shelter and transitional housing for homeless families with children.

Saint John’s, which started on the steps of its namesake Lutheran church in 1985, has never advertised itself as “low-barrier.” The program offers job training, domestic violence counseling and family reunification services to homeless women with children, but only if they’re sober, a restriction that has fallen out of favor among government funders and policy analysts who see a “housing first” philosophy as more effective to reduce homelessness.

While it’s too soon to know what effect the loss of funding has had on Saint John’s, there are some indications. In the program’s most recent IRS filings, it claimed $5.08 million in contributions and grants in 2017, the same year county supervisors pulled $700,000 in annual funding. More than half of its revenue—$2.78 million—came from government sources.

In 2017, that helped Saint John’s five top officers pull in six-figure salaries, with Steeb earning $164,000 in reportable compensation and Cawdrey getting $137,000, the tax filings show.

Saint John’s mentions its changed financial situation on its website, but puts a positive spin on it. “In 2007, Saint John’s was 80% reliant on government funding,” the website states. “Today, government contributions account for just 15% of our funding. That’s immense progress. And it’s largely due to the significant investments made by corporations, foundations and individuals who want to see more than just a temporary band-aid placed on the issues of homelessness, poverty, and abuse.”

Sue Cawdrey, Saint John’s grants and communications manager and wife of Marc Cawdrey, said in an email that the nonprofit intensified its efforts to diversify its funding through special events such as the graduation ceremony and guest chef dinners, where attendees buy tickets to get in and can buy donated items such as wine. At last month’s graduation ceremony, chef Scott Ostrander of Origami Asian Grill, whose team cooked the four-course meal, and Kevin Luther of Voluptuary Wine were recognized.

Saint John’s also raises money through a cafe and catering business, where its clients gain work experience as unpaid “volunteer learners,” Sue Cawdrey said, and through a child care center called First Steps.

Cawdrey declined to share officers’ current salaries.

In her email, Cawdrey said that 39% of Saint John’s current funding comes from “individuals, foundations, corporations and special events.” She said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation pitches in another 22% for its Custody to Community Transitional Reentry Program.

By comparison, another local nonprofit, Family Promise of Sacramento, received more than half of its revenue from government sources in 2016 and 2017, according to its tax filings.

“It was a very difficult thing for us, but we’re gradually coming out of the woods,” Marc Cawdrey said of the lost funding. “We anticipate that 2020 will be better than 2019, which was better than 2018. We’re on a path that will get us completely recovered.”