Head of mayor’s homeless organization resigns

The head of the homeless services organization founded by Mayor Kevin Johnson has abruptly left his post.

Ben Burton resigned as the executive director of Sacramento Steps Forward on Thursday, said newly appointed interim director Shamus Roller. Burton has been the executive director since 2011.

The reason for Burton’s departure is unclear. He did not return a message seeking comment.

Roller said he could not discuss the circumstances of Burton’s departure, citing it as a personnel matter. However, he did say the resignation was “rather sudden.”

Sacramento Steps Forward will immediately begin searching for a new executive director, Roller said.

Stephen Watters, executive director of the nonprofit group Safeground, which is seeking to establish a sanctioned campsite for homeless people, said he was shocked and “a little saddened” by Burton’s departure.

“He’s tried to mold and change this organization, move it in the right direction,” Watters said. “He’s been very supportive of our project. I think this is certainly a loss.”

Watters said Burton is “an activist in his heart” and may have had trouble navigating a “political environment” at Sacramento Steps Forward.

“He had to make a lot of compromises,” Watters said.

Other homeless advocates said Sacramento Steps Forward has suffered from a cash-flow problem that has created tensions between the organization and the charities that it supports.

Leo McFarland, president and chief executive officer of Volunteers of America, said Sacramento Steps Forward has yet to fully reimburse the charity for the $140,000 that VOA spent to coordinate last year’s winter sheltering program for the homeless.

“They asked if they could reimburse us on a payment plan, and those payments began in August of this year,” McFarland said. “We have received two payments, and are still expecting a third one.”

Sacramento Steps Forward is raising money for this year’s sheltering program, which typically starts in late November. VOA no longer is coordinating the program.

“Everyone recognized the challenges that Sacramento Steps Forward would have in its early stages,” McFarland said. “There were questions about whether it would have the ability to make payments on a timely basis” if HUD or other government organizations were late in awarding grants.

“We wondered, ‘How deep were Sacramento Steps Forward’s pockets?’” McFarland said.

Sacramento Steps Forward works on a variety of homeless service programs. It was founded by Johnson in 2009.

The organization is conducting a fundraising drive to support permanent housing, job training programs and extend a winter sanctuary program that shelters homeless families in houses of worship.

Earlier this year, Burton announced that the organization had received a renewal of $14 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding.