Cathie Anderson

St. John’s breaks ground on new transitional housing facility

Michelle Steeb, center, director of St. John's Shelter for homeless women and children, looks on during the press conference in 2013.
Michelle Steeb, center, director of St. John's Shelter for homeless women and children, looks on during the press conference in 2013. The Sacramento Bee

The nonprofit St. John’s Program for Real Change officially will break ground Wednesday on a new transitional housing facility, expanding with enough space to accommodate 90 additional women and children a day in Sacramento.

Currently, the nonprofit agency serves 180 women and children a day but has 250 others on its wait list, said Michele Steeb, the chief executive officer at St. John’s. She has embarked on a $3.9 million capital campaign to pay for the new facility, raising $300,000 in donations and securing forgivable loans worth $1.5 million from the Federal Home Loan Bank and the city of Sacramento.

“Almost all of our housing will be on one campus, which is going to be pretty fantastic for us – not only because we can serve more people but because we provide all the transportation for our clients back and forth from job training and health appointments and pretty much all they need to do outside of St. John’s,” Steeb said.

St. John’s currently employs 65 people, a third of whom are part-time workers, Steeb said, and it will add 20-30 jobs to accommodate the additional clientele. She said she’ll soon start looking to hire for positions ranging from drivers to mental health therapists and drug counselors.

The nonprofit expanded its team of mental health professionals as government programs for the indigent took cuts, Steeb said. St. John’s offers counseling and classes on healthy relationships, parenting, and attaining a high school diploma. Clients also get hands-on employment training in one of three associated businesses in Sacramento: Plates Cafe at 14 Business Park Way in Depot Park; Plates 2 Go at 1725 L St.; and First Steps child development center at 8245 Ferguson Ave.

“Ten years ago, we were about a million-dollar budget, and about 80 percent of that budget came from public dollars,” Steeb said. “Today, we are about a $5 million budget. We’re going to be growing next year, of course, with the new facility, but that $5 million budget is about 25 percent in public funding.”

This change has been purposeful, Steeb said, because public funding can come with rules that may hamstring the organization’s ability to help clients. Much of the organization’s funding now comes from foundations and private individuals.

Steeb expects First Steps to generate revenue of $300,000 this year, $30,000 of which will go back to St. John’s for programming. Neither Plates, however, have achieved profitability, though Steeb hopes one day they will. The challenge with the dining operations, she said, is getting the word out to potential diners since donors want their dollars to go toward programming rather than marketing.

“We’re constantly feeling this tension,” she said. “We’re running public-serving businesses – two restaurants and a day-care program – but we’re constantly struggling to market those with a very small amount of resources. But, on the other hand, Plates and First Steps do give us exposure we wouldn’t normally have.”

St. John’s now provides transitional housing for 12 to 18 months. That wasn’t the case when Steeb arrived at the organization 10 years ago. Then, one day, Steeb’s staff were helping a woman and her children when the woman’s sister came in for help with her kids in tow. The two women told the staff that they had been at the shelter 18 years earlier with their mother, and Steeb realized they had not been equipped with the skills to escape the cycle.

“The light bulb went on for me,” Steeb said. “At that point, we were a 30-day emergency shelter, and we basically gave people a roof over their heads and meals for up to 30 days. But it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that we can’t just do that and expect that we are really helping people change the trajectory of their lives.”

She began communicating that message to influential philanthropists, lenders, public officials and business owners. Members of HomeAid Sacramento, the nonprofit arm of the North State Building Industry Association, will manage St. John’s new housing project. (Years ago, they also worked on the adjacent St. John housing.) HomeAid’s employees have donated materials, labor and expertise. The architects and staff at Mather’s Comstock Johnson have led the design process and worked with new-home builder Lennar and Steeb to steer it through the regulatory approval process.

Every month, an army of volunteers show up at St. John’s to help with administrative tasks, client services, sorting donations and more, Steeb said, and she’s hoping that media coverage of the expansion will motivate more to come and help by the time the new facility opens in February 2017. (St. John’s doesn’t disclose where its facility is located because some clients have fled domestic violence.)

“People can help us financially with the capital campaign but also with their talent and time,” she said. “Right now, we run on about 65 staff members … and about 300 volunteers a month. To give you a sense of the ratio, volunteers are huge, huge in our program.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee