Michele Steeb, with David M. Flanagan, S-Club Publishing, 2020
Reviewed by Linda Rusenovich
Michele Steeb served for twelve years as executive director of St. John’s Program for Real Change (the “Red Door”), which is the largest, most comprehensive residential change program for women and children in Northern California. Residential change programs generally seek to effect positive outcomes for people who have been incarcerated and/or who suffer from some form of addiction. Steeb’s work won civic awards and prompted the State of California to start a similar program for women being released from prison. Her book describes the social and political factors affecting homeless women and children in Sacramento, California.
The author quotes statistics showing that the homeless population is increasing not only in west coast cities like San Francisco and Portland, but also across the country, and Steeb thinks the federal “Housing First” policy is making the problem worse. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) implemented Housing First in 2008 to assist mentally ill and addicted people living on the streets. But between 2011 and 2013, HUD expanded taxpayer-funded housing to all homeless persons, while at the same time cutting funding for social services.
HUD’s website defines Housing First as “an approach to quickly and successfully connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements.” Steeb argues that this policy hurts women who want to change their self-destructive behaviors. It encourages dependence on government instead of teaching them how to lead productive lives whereby they can provide for themselves and their children. Housing First shelters these women near hardened addicts and criminals, leaving them without convenient access to social services.
Steeb explains how St. John’s addresses the root causes of homelessness for women who are motivated to change and who are willing to commit to the eighteen-month program. Upon admission, all of these women are unemployed. Most have suffered abuse and/or other trauma and are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Many have a history of violent relationships, mental health challenges, or criminal records. About half lack a high school diploma. Although most are mothers, a quarter are separated from their children.
The St John’s program provides a safe, clean environment where clients can work on their sobriety, mental health, and personal relationship skills. Each woman is screened, and a case manager assigns an individualized program which may include substance abuse counseling, group therapy, parenting classes, job training, and budgeting. Clients who lack a high school diploma can work toward earning their GED.
Children on the St. John’s campus live with their mothers and attend the early childhood development center or take a school bus to the local public school. Separated families may be reunited during the program as mothers make progress toward goals set by California’s Child Protective Services.
The personal stories of the women who pass through the St. John’s program, their struggles, and successes, are very touching and even inspiring. Steeb’s compassion for their plight is genuine and contagious, and readers find themselves rooting for each woman to succeed. The author’s background gives her credibility when she argues for individualized case management versus the one-size-fits-all approach of the Federal Housing First Program.
Steeb disputes HUD’s data on the costs and effectiveness of Housing First, referring to academic studies and press reports which contradict it. This discussion seems too broad for the one chapter she devotes to it, but she does raise questions that highlight a need for better independent research to guide government policy. Professional editing may have made sections of this self-published book more readable, but Steeb’s message comes through loud and clear.
Answers Behind the Red Door helps to humanize “the homeless” and shows how government policies can exacerbate or relieve their suffering. This is a good read for any civic leader or citizen concerned about homelessness in their community.
Editor’s Note: Linda Rusenovich is a mom and free-lance writer. She admires programs such as St. John’s and recognizes their value in serving people struggling with homelessness.