Saint John’s Program For Real Change, which shelters and mentors homeless women and children in Sacramento, celebrated its successes this past month with a ceremony attended by Congresswoman Doris Matsui, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and other luminaries.
“Saint John’s represents all that is possible” for lifting people out of homelessness, Steinberg declared at the event. The agency, founded in 1985 on the steps of a local Lutheran church, had just opened a $2 million new wing, allowing it to house 90 more people and put them on a path toward employment and independence.
But even as politicians and graduates of the program spoke of its longevity and track record, the nonprofit organization was facing a crisis. Sacramento County was making changes in its funding of transitional housing for homeless people, and Saint John’s had been cut off.
The county, which for 15 years had provided funding to Saint John’s, voted to award its $720,000 annual contract for transitional housing to Volunteers of America. County officials concluded that VOA provided fewer barriers to homeless people entering its programs. Among other things, VOA accepts men and teenage boys, and places a priority on housing without regard to whether clients are clean and sober. The county concluded that services for those clients represented the most pressing need.
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In addition, VOA said it would provide housing for 25 families annually, six more than Saint John’s.
Saint John’s, with an annual budget of about $7 million, was caught off guard by the loss of funds. The county’s decision, officials said, might mean the agency would have to shutter 57 beds. It could trigger loan defaults and the loss of matching grant funding that eventually could cost the organization nearly $3 million, they said.
“The loss of our partnership with the county is a loss of about $60,000 a month,” said Chet Hewitt, who chairs the agency’s board of directors. “It really puts in jeopardy the continuum of services that we provide to a growing number of women and children.”
Unless the funding is restored, he said, the agency could default on two affordable housing loans, including one from the City of Sacramento, that require the agency to serve a specific number of clients and provide certain programs.
“There is a possibility we could fail to meet performance targets, and over time that could put the facility itself in jeopardy,” Hewitt said.
“The loss is painful,” he continued. “We’re going to do all we can to fill that hole,” including reducing expenses and ramping up fundraising. “In the meantime we are hoping the county sees the wisdom of our work.”
Ann Edwards, director of the county’s Department of Human Assistance, said she respects Saint John’s and has empathy for its situation. She said, however, that the agency has failed to prove that the county’s decision would trigger loan defaults or losses in grant funding.
“This is not an indictment of their program,” Edwards said. “Saint John’s is great. But it’s incumbent upon government to conduct competitive procurement processes, which we did in this case. Someone else just did better than Saint John’s. Now they’re having to regroup.”
Saint John’s hopes to compete for an additional $540,000 in county money for homeless services that will be available in the coming months. But the county has yet to commit to a specific use of the funds. They may be earmarked for programs other than transitional housing, Edwards said.
Changes in the county’s funding of homeless programs began this past spring, when administrators decided to place a sharper focus on the most desperate people on the streets. The county decided to fund two emergency family shelters that would, for the first time, accept pets. A “bed reservation” system would be put in place to give priority to those in greatest need.
The county also decided that, rather than automatically award an annual contract to Saint John’s, it would open a competitive bidding process for funding of 19 units of “transitional housing” which aim to prepare clients for stable employment and permanent homes. An independent panel of three people, representing Loaves & Fishes, the Sacramento Police Department and Sacramento State University, gave VOA a slightly higher score than Saint John’s.
“We were looking for a program that served … literally homeless families, families with substance abuse and mental health issues. Whole families,” including those with men and teenage boys, Edwards said.
VOA won the contract largely because of its emphasis on accepting “unique family structures,” said Leo McFarland, VOA president and chief operating officer.
“A single father and his child could work in our program,” he said. “Same-sex couples would fit. And, really importantly, male children older than 13 are eligible. I think the flexibility for families led by males was one of the main separating issues.”
He said VOA offers 15 different job training programs at its Mather Community Campus, in fields including culinary, janitorial and truck driving. While the agency does not require sobriety, it urges clients to take part in addiction programs if appropriate, he said. The campus has 180 studio apartments and 60 family units. Most clients move to permanent housing within nine months, and after two years only 4 percent end up back in the county’s homeless services system, McFarland said.
Saint John’s argues that its programs are unique and deserve county support. The agency operates one of the largest shelters in the county, with a daily capacity of 270 clients and a waiting list of 400 people. It offers job training, counseling, mental health and addiction therapy and parenting classes, and is the only program of its kind focused exclusively on women and children, many who have suffered from domestic abuse and other trauma.
Hewitt said 80 percent of the women Saint John’s serves leave the program “employed and sober,” with pathways to stable futures with their families. Finding permanent housing, however, is a challenge for the women because of a lack of “clean, safe and affordable” residences in the Sacramento area.
Saint John’s saves the county untold dollars by helping troubled women reclaim their lives and get back children who they lost to foster care, Hewitt said.
“We’re not just providing a service,” he said. “We are intimately engaged in the lives of our folks.”
The agency’s requirements for entry are, indeed, barriers for some, he said. But “it’s not as though we don’t serve males at all,” he said. Half of all children in Saint John’s programs are boys, and they leave the program “having seen the importance of people loving all people.”
Sobriety, Hewitt said, “is something that we seek” from clients, more than 70 percent of whom have struggled with addiction. “We’re not saying that Saint John’s is for everyone. There must be a desire to really want to transform their lives. But if someone relapses in our program, we don’t ask them to leave. We give them support to recover.”
The county’s decision to cut off funding to the agency was based on “too shallow an analysis” of Saint John’s, Hewitt said.
In December, Edwards said, the county will open bids for $540,000 in county funding to “fill gaps” in the homeless system. “We are in the process of identifying those gaps,” which might include funding “diversion” programs that would target people at imminent risk for becoming homeless because of money constraints, medical problems or other issues.
In the meantime, the city and county agreed this week to commit $108 million over the next three years to help thousands of chronically homeless people get off the streets. Using federal and city money from a pilot program known as Whole Person Care, as well as county funding for increased mental health and addiction services, the combined effort is designed to keep homeless people out of emergency rooms, bring stability to their lives through various programs and move them toward permanent housing.
Saint John’s supports the efforts, Hewitt said. But until the project is up and running, he said, concerns are high for the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people in Sacramento County who live outdoors. He urged the county to release its “gap funding” money as soon as possible to protect people during winter months.
“We think the delay is unconscionable,” Hewitt said. “As the weather is rapidly changing, we think it’s completely insensitive. It’s out of touch with the reality of homelessness in our community.”