“My job,” says Rachell Salyer, “is to help people turn an overwhelming beast into a bunch of tiny monsters that we can slay one at a time.”

The beast: finding and keeping rental housing in this crazy market.

The monsters: low income, troubled credit, low-wage employment, lack of inventory, poor health, crazy competition, high rents, lack of knowledge or time or confidence or childcare or—you name it!

Rachell works at our Laure Reichek Housing Hub in Santa Rosa as a Housing Navigator in one of our Rapid Re-Housing programs—this one, community-funded to provide short-term financial assistance and services to the first and second wave victims of the 2017 fires. Since July 1, she’s helped house 94 people, 27 of them children.  One hundred percent of her participants have remained in their housing after COTS’ rental assistance ended. And she’s well on track to house at least 33 more people by July 1, the target we set with our funders.

How does she do it?

Empathy and respect are her first tools, she’ll tell you.

Rachell remembers a time in her own life when she needed help. “I remember how people treated me. And it wasn’t good,” she says, her eyes steely at the memory. “I make an active choice every day never to do that to anyone.”

“I’m honest with them about the state of affairs in Sonoma County, the challenges that they’re facing,” she says. “I acknowledge how hard they’re working and how hard they’re going to have to keep working. I grew up here. This situation is not normal.”

Housing that the client can keep after COTS’ support ends is going to look different for everyone. One large family might need a house, another might be willing to squeeze into a one-bedroom apartment. Another participant might know that shared housing is the only affordable, long-term solution that will work.

“The plan has to be something they come up with themselves and that they believe they can sustain,” Rachell says. Her role is to help clients analyze their options, and to give them tools, encouragement and feedback.

Discussions nearly always start with money. Of necessity, most of her clients are expert at living frugally, but many of them need help anticipating expenses that come up irregularly; once they’ve crunched the numbers, most decide they need to increase their income so that they’ll be able to pay their rent once COTS’ time-limited assistance ends.

“We break things down into steps,” Rachell says. “First, I ask them what kind of work they want to do, what kind of income they want to earn. We look at the cost of living. We look at what the experts say.”

She sticks with her clients every step of the way. Her experiences with a young man we’ll call “Robert” illustrate the point. Robert’s Santa Rosa rental burned in the fires and he was living in a FEMA trailer. He kept his job, working for a local nonprofit, doing work he’s passionate about, but he couldn’t find or afford a new rental. He and Rachell talked about his professional goals. He wanted to stay with his employer because he loves the agency’s mission, but he had to make more money.

Rachell helped him update his resume, and along the way, helped him recognize all the skills he’d developed during his career. She sat down him for mock interviews, in which she helped him discover an authoritative, confident voice through which to express his passion for his work. When he got a promotion and a $3 per hour raise, she celebrated with him and helped him plan how he’d put that additional money to work and how he’d position himself to earn even more. He’s in a shared rental now, something he can afford.

“You have to celebrate every achievement along the way,” Rachell says. “You can’t wait. You have to let people know you see them, you see how hard they’re working.”

It’s also important not to kick people when they’re down. “If someone fails, the last thing they need is me telling them. They are fully aware,” Rachell says. Instead, she listens when people face set-backs. “I let them reflect on what happened, and I give them my perspective. I remind them of all the things they’ve done for themselves.  Then, we talk about what’s holding them back and how they want to address it.”

She keeps paperwork to a minimum when she’s with clients. “I want them to know they’re my priority. They have my attention.” That means doing notes and follow-up assignments immediately after a meeting.

Rachell’s supervisor Emily Quig credit Rachell with creating administrative and application systems that allow us to put clients first while still fulfilling our reporting obligations. “She has a great balance of head and heart.”

The beauty of the Rapid Re-Housing program is its flexibility, Rachell says. About 25 percent of the clients don’t need much beyond a couple of meetings, a few text messages and a deposit or a small amount of rental assistance. “I don’t need to make them jump through unnecessary hoops. But I can also be there for people who need more. I can meet with people at their homes or in a coffee shop or park or in our office—whatever they’re most comfortable with.”

“I get thanked a lot,” Rachell says, “and that’s nice, but I always remind people that they did the work. I gave them tools, but they used them.”