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,

Homelessness is Expensive

Managing homelessness is costly – to the economy, environment, health care, criminal justice system, and our fellow human beings. Estimates range from $30,000 to $50,000 a year per person that is chronically homeless, defined as being homeless for at least one year or longer with serious disabling conditions such as mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability.

A six-year study of some 104,000 homeless individuals in Santa Clara County showed that the county spent $520 Million a year or $3.1B over the six-year period on homeless services. The highest utilizers accounted for 47% of all costs and averaged over $100,000 per year.

53% of the annual costs was for health care. Serious health issues cause and result from homelessness. Living on the streets makes it difficult to get regular medical care, to rest and recuperate, and only exacerbates any illnesses, thus increasing medical costs. Of the annual costs, 34% was for the Justice System as homeless individuals also spend more time in jail or prison due to violations such as loitering or sleeping in cars. Then there’s the environmental impact – trash, human waste, rubbish from encampments, and polluted waterways – and the cost of the required clean-up. There’s also the costs to businesses such as reduced foot traffic in business districts, lower real estate values, or increased maintenance costs.

Various funding sources pay for these services – grants from the federal, state, and local government, private foundations and businesses, and generous donations.

The solution that many counties have adopted is the Housing First model. The premise is that homelessness is primarily a housing problem and that housing is the foundation for life improvement. Once the basic necessities like food, water, and shelter are cared for, then people are not in crisis and can focus on critical elements like employment, mental health, physical health, and other challenges. Studies show that getting someone housed quickly with supportive services results in significant decreases in use of emergency rooms, hospitalizations, incarcerations, and shelter stays. Estimates of the annual cost of housing someone for one year ranges between $15,000 to $20,000 versus $30,000 to $50,000 and even the $100,000 costs for high utilizers.

In Sonoma County, there is a moral and economic imperative: we need more housing units. Given the costs to our community, no one should be living on the streets.

Life in Encampments

Last week, I visited several encampments with our street outreach specialist Cecily Kagy. It was an eye opener. One encampment was very clean – no rubbish, needles, empty alcohol bottles, or urine and feces. They had rules and everyone had responsibilities, much like a home. There was a set-up for a shower, a cooking area, and a daily routine where several people would go out during the day to search for food and water. There were even plastic flowers hanging from one of the tents to make it feel homey. It was clear talking with the residents that they want to be in a home, want a job, and want to feel part of society and not looked down upon. One person teared-up when talking about her kids and grandkids.

We went to another encampment that was not so clean. Lots of rubbish, car parts, and dilapidated motor homes completely filled with stuff. Hoarding can be a psychological effect of homelessness: there is this feeling that, “If I can just have this stuff, then I will feel better.” Many of those experiencing homelessness have also lost people and things in their lives, so hoarding items can be a reminder of a life they used to have or hope to have, thus the need to stock up and be prepared.

We talked with one person who preferred living by himself. His grocery cart contained everything he owned. After graduating from a prestigious university, he started having mental health challenges and then just drifted from city to city. He didn’t want to be confined in a home or a shelter with other people. He was bright, articulate, and engaging. Cecily was able to bring him into the shelter last month to shower – his first time bathing in three years.

Through all of these encounters, Cecily was never in a rush – talking, hugging, smiling, joking, and genuinely engaging with everyone. She was part counselor, motivator, disciplinarian, parent, friend, and fellow human being who related to everyone and earned their respect because she was once homeless and on the streets herself. She said clients will sense if you’re in a rush because it means you don’t care – and if you don’t care, then you lose their trust. If you lose their trust, there’s no chance of helping them access services that will get them into a home.

While I don’t have a magic wand for ending homelessness, one thing is for sure. We can all be part of a solution by first being just a little bit like Cecily – taking the time, reaching out, and lending a helping hand to a neighbor in need.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez