Solitary saints

Saint John’s Program for Real Change isolated by decision to eschew ‘housing first’ philosophy while demanding sobriety

Saint John’s executive director Michelle Steeb defends her agency at a gala fundraiser May 3.

Saint John’s executive director Michelle Steeb defends her agency at a gala fundraiser May 3.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

A calm California sunset flares over the old Army depot in Sacramento. Well-dressed men and women stroll past the amber garden lights, sipping wine under the maple branches as a duo of guitarists drizzle light, acoustic notes. Women in black aprons circle the crowd holding trays decked with colorful appetizers. According to the brochure, it’s these servers who are the actual stars of the evening.

Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a nonprofit working to lift women out of homelessness, has been hosting these elegant “guest chef dinners” for months. The soirees often feature the cream of Sacramento’s culinary crop, though tonight the special chefs are the ladies themselves. Some of the women ended up on the streets trying to escape domestic violence. Others saw their lives devastated by long-term substance abuse. More than a few are still reckoning with criminal convictions and trying to get their kids back from Child Protective Services.

Saint John’s supporters claim the nonprofit tackles these daunting challenges better than any agency in the region. Its strict seven-month program is meant to house distressed women while offering them addiction treatment, life skills, self-esteem building, job training and free legal aid. And Saint John’s can point to anecdotal stories of women who’ve used the program to break their crisis cycle. A number have achieved permanent housing and ongoing employment. Some have even regained custody of their children.

But are anecdotal stories enough in a county with more than 13,000 people on the streets, according to county food stamp data? That question, along with concerns about Saint John’s record-keeping, have played a role in the organization’s funding streams evaporating. Saint John’s is currently undergoing a financial audit by Sacramento County, one that’s led to a temporary freeze in state-administered federal funds. Saint John’s is also missing out on additional revenue sources by shunning the “housing first” philosophy, which emphasizes getting homeless individuals safely sheltered before addressing their broader health and employment needs. Saint John’s demands constant sobriety from the women it helps.

Yet tonight, on the Big Day of Giving, the region’s greatest philanthropy moment of the year, Saint John’s executive director Michelle Steeb stands before a crowd of donors and makes an impassioned defense of her agency. She calls up two women who graduated from her program, Tammy and Kami, who share that Saint John’s up-by-the-bootstraps approach helped them overcome the worst moments of their lives. As Tammy tearfully recounts finally having her kids back, eyes begin to well up across the decorated tables. Steeb tells the audience that such triumphs are what county leaders are threatening when they don’t support Saint John’s.

“The county now believes that, since homelessness is a condition, the answer is just a house,” Steeb said. “But a house would not have helped Tammy and Kami to get to where they are today.”

But with Saint John’s struggling to stay funded, how did it get to where it is today?

Saint John’s glamorous dinner parties, replete with marquee chefs and renowned winemakers, appear to be a smoother fundraising strategy than some of its grant-writing efforts.

In the fall of 2017, Sacramento County officials started auditing how the nonprofit was administering funds for a special contract to give homeless women employment training. The grant comes via CalFresh, the state’s version of a federal food-assistance program that channels federal Housing and Urban Development dollars to the state’s Department of Social Services, which then awards that money to counties, which then pick their own service providers.

Sacramento County gave some of those funds to Saint John’s to help expand its job-training services for women who are CalFresh eligible. However, according to Ann Edwards, the county’s director of human assistance, when her department sought clarifications from state officials about some of the reimbursement paperwork that Saint John’s was submitting, the state saw problems—and told the county to halt the funds.

Edwards says the county’s audit was an effort to eventually win back the state’s confidence in Saint John’s and get the dollars flowing again, but the program’s director didn’t see it that way.

Steeb declined to grant an interview before press time. But in January, she wrote a letter to Supervisor Phil Serna in which she described the amount of work involved for Saint John’s to comply with the audit, as well as the toll it was taking.

“We are fully supportive of this audit. However, given that we have provided 800 pages of back-up documentation for every invoice we have submitted, and given that we are currently sitting on a $600K receivable, which will grow to $900K by March 31, which is a daunting challenge for us, we are continuing to try and manage the negative impacts of these delays,” Steeb wrote.

Job training is one of Saint John’s most touted features. After one month of intensive classes and counseling, the women in the program have a choice to either start working in the nonprofit’s Plates Café and Catering—one eatery is located in Midtown and the other in the Army Depot’s old chow hall—or start working in a child care service based in South Sacramento.

If the women graduate from the seven-month program, they leave with a little under $700 for their labor, but they also have Saint John’s staff working to find them jobs in child care or the restaurant industry, regardless of prior criminal convictions. Several women currently in the program told SN&R that past DUIs and drug offenses remain ongoing barriers for them to land stable jobs, even in California’s new era of “not checking the box.” The women all expressed confidence that Saint John’s team would use its connections to help them overcome that hurdle. Staff members told SN&R that numerous Saint John’s graduates are now working at Sacramento’s top dining houses.

Edwards says the county is not trying to interfere with those success stories.

“We expect that very soon we’ll be able to put this behind us and move forward,” Edwards said of the audit.

Even if the CalFresh dollars start rolling back to Saint John’s, its funding challenges won’t be solved.

Late last year, Sacramento County decided to revamp its strategy around combating homelessness. Previously, it had awarded various levels of its transitional housing funds to Saint John’s. But in November, county officials convinced the Board of Supervisors to change course, instead giving all $720,000 of its transitional housing money to Volunteers of America. Edwards says the reason was simple.

“Saint John’s was invited to put in [a request-for-proposals application] for those funds,” Edwards said. “Someone else just came in with a superior bid.”

At the time, Chet Hewitt, the chairman of Saint John’s board of directors, expressed concerns about the lost funding, though his nonprofit was soon applying for a brand new monetary stream from the county. Known as Augmented County Homeless Initiatives, the $540,000 funding source was something numerous Sacramento nonprofits wanted a piece of. The county put together a panel of independent experts to rank the applications. The panel gave Saint John’s the third highest score. In January, county officials recommended that the supervisors award funds to the first- and second-highest-rated applicants—Wind Youth Services and Sacramento Self-Help Housing. Supervisors agreed, cutting Saint John’s out completely.

In Steeb’s letter to Serna, dated after the recommendation but before the supervisors’ vote, she urged the board to consider splitting the money three ways. Edwards tells SN&R that math didn’t add up for elected officials.

“If we had split it three ways, we’d get less economy and effectiveness with tiny programs,” she observed. “And the top-rated program would not have been operating as well as it should have.”

Edwards adds that the panel had no knowledge of the county’s audit of Saint John’s, which she says was not a factor. So what was? County documents show that “number of individuals served” was among the top criteria in the rating process. Saint John’s model of focusing entirely on homeless women and their children set it apart from most of the service providers it competed against.

Saint John’s refusal to embrace the housing first philosophy has also put it on a funding island. Every year, most of the local nonprofits that work on homelessness apply for federal HUD dollars via the HEARTH Act. In January, some $20 million of those funds were split between eight different service providers in the area, all of which belong to Sacramento Steps Forward’s continuum of care.

Ben Avey, chief public affairs officer for Steps Forward, said Saint John’s is not part of the continuum—or eligible for HEARTH Act money—because that requires embracing a housing first philosophy.

“The federal government has set some expectations and guidelines that don’t necessarily match [Saint John’s] model,” Avey explained.

He adds that the continuum does refer homeless clients to Saint John’s when they are a good fit for the nonprofit’s gender criteria and sobriety requirement. As for Saint John’s being on the minority end of a 1-to-8 ratio of local service providers, Avey would only say, “Housing first is a fairly prominent strategy right now, and a lot of people believe in it.”