California Forum

Shelter’s journey filled with faith and hope, courage and resiliency

Michele Steeb, executive director of Saint John’s Program for Real Change, and churches in Sacramento will be celebrating St. John’s Shelter’s 30 years of service Sunday.
Michele Steeb, executive director of Saint John’s Program for Real Change, and churches in Sacramento will be celebrating St. John’s Shelter’s 30 years of service Sunday. Sacramento Bee file

It was born in humble circumstances on the steps of St. John’s Lutheran Church at 17th and L streets in midtown 30 years ago.

It was there that 20 homeless women and children came to rest and sleep, also hoping they might get something to eat. They were given beds and food in the church’s basement.

What has followed that simple beginning for St. John’s Shelter is a journey filled with faith and hope and love, a journey filled with courage and resiliency, a three-decade journey that will be celebrated and prayed over Sunday in churches across the Sacramento area.

And each church has been given a red door, a duplicate of the front doors at what is now known as Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a door 200 women and children pass through each day.

The program, which became an independent nonprofit a few years after its start, now has six locations. It has a career placement and education center; two restaurants, Plates Cafe and Plates2go; corporate event catering; a GED preparatory program with 48 graduates; an employment-training program with 65 graduates; and a child development center.

A handful of years ago, 80 percent of its $1 million budget came through county contracts, 20 percent from community sources. Today, only 18 percent of its $4.5 million budget comes from public funding.

There are many organizations and people who have helped build this program, but none more than Michele Steeb, the executive director.

It was the day after Thanksgiving in 2006, and Michele, a relatively fresh board member, was giving a tour of the facilities at St. John’s Shelter.

The phone rang. It was the board president, Frank Espegren, then a pastor of Advent Lutheran Church in Citrus Heights and now senior pastor at St. John’s, which has never stopped supporting the program.

There was trouble: There wasn’t enough money to cover some checks, the food truck wasn’t coming, a key employee had resigned.

I knew we had to do more than just shelter these families.

Michele Steeb, the executive director of Saint John’s Program for Real Change

“I asked Pastor Frank if he wanted me to address the staff,” Michele recalled recently. And “in the course of that three-minute presentation, I had a strong calling and I knew I had to do something bigger than just talk to the staff.”

She told her boss at the California Chamber of Commerce that she was going to leave to do just that. His advice? Take a month off, volunteer to fix the problems and then come back to work. A month later, Michele returned, this time to resign. She knew what she had to do.

“Our goal is to change lives, not just provide Band-Aids, although Band-Aids are important,” Michele said.

This was never clearer to her than on a day in 2007 when two sisters with their children came to the shelter a week apart. But this wasn’t their first time. Eighteen years before, they had been there as children with their mom.

“A huge light bulb came on for me,” Michele recalled. “I knew we had to do more than just shelter these families.”

And that has been her goal ever since.

Michele understands that “it takes a great amount of courage to humble yourself to enter the shelter, to let your kids know that you are at this point. I shudder at what it takes to know and say, ‘I have to make a change; what I have been doing isn’t working.’ 

The women in the program go through five levels, progressing from stabilization to self-sustainability. Michelle likens it to going through all the hoops from grade school to a master’s degree.

Many do not make it, and that is what hurts Michele the most.

“Raising money is hard, but it is way harder when moms do not continue in the program. That potential may never be there again for them and their children.”

It’s also brutally difficult to know that you have to turn away more than 300 women each day because you can’t accommodate them.

But Michele’s face glows as she speaks of those moments when the women do cross that all-important threshold, when they get their first paycheck or take their children on their first vacation or have their first real relationship devoid of abuse.

“I am humbled by them,” she said. “It has also taught me the importance of positive thinking when you are going through tough times.”

Michele and her husband, Jim, know the meaning of tough times. Jim had a massive heart attack in 2013. Almost a year later, he had a heart transplant. Now he is doing well.

“We believe in the power of prayer,” Michele said.

There will be a lot of prayers Sunday. And perhaps there will be a tomorrow when there will be room behind the red doors for all the women and children seeking real change.

Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for the McClatchy Company. He is also a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church.