I would like to sit down and have a cup of coffee with you to share our progress in serving the homeless, and hear from you about what we could be doing differently or better. Until then, I’d like to introduce you to a Virtual Cup of Coffee. This is 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,

Point in Time Count Results

In February, I talked about participating in the annual Homeless Point in Time Count. It measures the prevalence of homelessness in each community and collects information on individuals and families in emergency shelters, transitional housing, and people sleeping on the streets, in cars, abandoned properties, or places not meant for human habitation. The count is the only source of nationwide data on homelessness and is required by HUD (Housing and Urban Development) of all jurisdictions receiving federal funding for homeless services.

The results of the count were released in late June.

For all of Sonoma County, the total homeless population was 2,951, down by 45 people or 1.5% from 2,996 in 2018. For Petaluma, the count was 265 people – down 20 from 285 in 2018. Not big changes but we are moving in the right direction.

The biggest increase was with unaccompanied children and youth, which increased from 515 in 2018 to 666 in 2019 or 29%. Young people have a harder time accessing services due to the stigma of their housing situation, lack of knowledge of available resources, and fewer services available for youth.

Eighty-seven percent of the people surveyed reported living in Sonoma County prior to becoming homeless. Of that, 70% reported living in Sonoma County for 10 or more years. I am often asked whether most of the homeless are local or from out of state or county, but the survey shows that these are our neighbors, our coworkers, even our friends.

Nineteen percent of those surveyed reported that their previous housing or sleeping location was affected by the 2017 fires and of those, 37% reported that their home or sleeping location was burned or destroyed by the fires.

Homeless veterans increased slightly from 207 in 2018 to 210 in 2019. Veterans experience higher rates of PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), sexual assault, and substance abuse, and are more likely to live on the streets versus shelters.

The survey also showed that the primary causes of homelessness were job loss, argument with family or friend, alcohol/drug abuse, eviction, and divorce or separation. The biggest obstacle to finding housing was not being able to afford the high rents. The most common health issues were drug or alcohol abuse (38%), psychiatric or emotional conditions (35%), PTSD (25%), and physical disorder (25%). Thirty-four percent reported a history of domestic violence and 16% reported trading sex for money due to their vulnerable circumstances and precarious access to basic needs.

Another question I hear is, “Do the homeless want to be housed?” Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed said they would want a home if one were available and affordable.

So what does this all mean? We have our work ahead of us to successfully address this very complex social issue. While the focus must continue to get people housed, we cannot forget about the need for more mental health counseling, longer case management support, and simply walking side by side with dignity and love until those experiencing homelessness are ready to be independent.

Shelter Rules and Client Advocacy

I often get the question about the rules at the Mary Isaak Center. Yes, we have rules against behavior such as violence or threats of violence toward staff or residents or use of alcohol or drugs in the shelter. It’s one way to maintain a sense of order and safety for our clients.

But we must be careful in how we carry out rules. An environment emphasizing rule enforcement can produce anger, resistance, and even rebelliousness. “If our residents have no way to express their feelings or are afraid to raise concerns with staff, then they may take their anger out on other residents.” One resident recently said to me, “we are all damaged people and we just need help.” A punitive environment only exacerbates that sense of despair. Moreover, strict rule enforcement without understanding a resident’s history can also impact staff morale.

At COTS, we balance shelter rules with advocacy. Each resident has the right to be respected, to be heard, to self-determination, and to reside in a clean and safe environment. We know that often, clients cannot advocate for themselves as they may not have the experience, self-confidence or know-how. So our case managers advocate for them. We help them clarify their goals, give them information about resources and opportunities that are best for them, and help them pursue housing, employment, and treatment. If someone acts out, we try to find out what is really going on. Yes, we exit people from the shelter for gross violations of rules. But we also make every effort to give each resident a warning and a second chance. The case managers have weekly meetings about each resident and their progress toward their goals. Case Managers take seriously their responsibility to help each resident be successful. Their advocacy for each resident is aligned with our mission of helping people transition from homelessness to housing and our values of Accountability, Respect, Integrity, and Results.

Living in a shelter is difficult. We hope our practice of rules balanced with strong advocacy results in harmony with 100 people living in a common space. We are grateful to our residents for trying to keep the Common Good of their neighbors in mind while at the Mary Isaak Center.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez