As COTS’ CEO, each month I take a moment to consider what I want our community to know about our organization and our progress in serving Sonoma County’s homeless. I look forward to sharing these thoughts with you in this Virtual Cup of Coffee – my monthly communique about the business and mission moments of COTS (Committee On The Shelterless). In the Business portion, I will share the nuts and bolts of what we do to serve the homeless – our successes and our challenges. In the Mission Moment, I will share stories about our clients and our wonderful staff who make it all happen. I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to your feedback.

All my best,
Chuck

Our Homeless System of Care

Addressing homelessness is complex. There are dozens of homeless service providers and county departments working on this. There are federal, state, and local funding sources that come with regulatory requirements; homeless advocates, elected officials, community leaders, private donors, foundations, and health care professionals—all valuable voices on this issue. So how do we administer all these moving parts?

Sonoma County restructured their Homeless System of Care to be more intentional, focused, accountable, and results oriented. They created a system comprised of three basic parts that closely work together.

The first part is the Leadership Council. They own the homeless issue, approve funding decisions and policy, set strategy for solving the issue, and monitor overall performance. The Council has nine people including elected officials, people with “lived experience” (formerly homeless), an assistant city manager representing small cities, and an expert on housing and county matters.

The second is the Technical Advisory Committee. They recommend policy and provide expertise to the Council and are comprised of 25 subject matter experts from various interest groups in the county. Most of their work is done through six Task Groups that examine homelessness from different perspectives – funding, housing first philosophy, performance, emerging issues and innovation, data, and housing production.

The third is the Lead Agency which is the Community Development Commission (County Department). They ensure all parts of the System of Care are working together in a coordinated and focused way. They provide expertise on state and federal funding, technical assistance to the Leadership Council, Technical Advisory Committee, the Task Groups, and help manage the annual Point in Time Count which counts all the homeless in Sonoma County.

I am on the Technical Advisory Committee and chair one of the Task Groups. This System of Care is working. There are very competent, experienced, innovative, and caring professionals addressing this problem. There are goals, accountabilities, checks and balances, oversight, and strong leadership. It will take time to solve the homeless issue but I am confident with this new System of Care, it will happen.

In future Virtual Coffees, I’ll give specific examples of how all three tiers of our Homeless System of Care work together to address homelessness in Sonoma County.

The dignity of a shower

Many of us start our day with a shower. It wakes us up, cleans us, and gets us ready for our day. We enjoy the smell of our favorite soap, shampoo, and a clean towel.

For those living on the streets or encampments, they don’t have the luxury of this daily ritual. Most have not showered in weeks and months. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just where? Imagine trying to stay clean living in a tent when its 95 degrees and humid or wet and muddy especially after the rains we’ve had this year. Impossible!

Nobody wants to be dirty and smelly. It offends you and others. A shower could remind you of what life was like before becoming homeless and perhaps what to look forward to when getting housed. It can provide a sense of dignity and respect – crucial to survival on the streets.

Randy Clay and Cecily Kagy, our two awesome Street Outreach Workers, spend much of their day walking the streets and encampments working with our homeless and trying to build their trust. Offering them showers can do just that. Because of that and the need, they recently worked with Shelter Manager Silvia Montero to make showers available every Wednesday afternoon. It’s been wonderfully successful. We provide soap and a clean towel.

We know the need is huge, so we are working to have more afternoons for showers. We want to make sure each guest gets a toothbrush, toothpaste, and basic toiletries to keep. We’re also working on ensuring each visitor here has a hot meal waiting for them.

Being homeless is a full-time job. It’s a chaotic environment where instability, stress, hopelessness and lack of opportunity dictate an individual’s life. We hope that providing showers, toiletries, and a hot meal is the first step in furthering trust that will then allow them to accept other services such as case management, medical care, getting on the waiting list for a shelter bed, and eventually housing.

For now, one step at a time – a hot shower!

If you would like to support these efforts with items for our shower program, please contact Kyle Muelrath at kmuelrath@cots.org.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez