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,

Housing First is Not Housing Only

The Housing First (HF) approach is based on three core principles. One is that homelessness is primarily a housing problem and housing is the foundation for life improvement. Once basic necessities are met like shelter, food, warmth, and security, and the person is no longer in crisis wondering where they are going to eat or sleep, then they can concentrate and get the help they need. The second principle is the importance of removing barriers to get housing such as addiction, lack of income, or a criminal background. These issues are best addressed once housed.

The third principle, and what I believe to be the most critical to successful HF, is intense case management or wrap-around services to address their many needs. This is what will determine if a person will remain stably and successfully housed. Why is this so important?

After years of living on the streets, learning to live in an apartment is not as simple as unlocking the door and walking in. Housing comes with rules – no smoking, paying rent on time, cleaning your place, and simple things like taking your keys when you leave. Formerly homeless individuals are now living by someone else’s rules – the landlord’s. Living on the streets is different – you have no keys, you live hour by hour, there are no bills to pay. Leaving the streets means abandoning the past and imagining a new future. It means learning how to shop, making a budget, and planning ahead. Loneliness can also set in because friends are still on the streets or in shelters. That guilt can trigger old behaviors. All of this can be more challenging than living on the streets.

Given the economics of Sonoma County and the lack of affordable housing, just finding a place to live is difficult, so once you get a place, you need to do everything possible to keep it. This is where intense case management comes in – to help recondition people’s behaviors, help people become accountable and responsible for apartment living, and think differently. Someone said that a formerly homeless person could fall in and out of housing two or three times before they finally get it right. With intense case management, hopefully we can get it right the first time.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Have your parents ever said, “don’t judge a book by its cover?” Mine did – meaning don’t judge a person’s value or humanity by an outward appearance.

I’ve known Jimmy, one of our clients at the Mary Isaak Center, for almost ten years. I first met him while working for another shelter organization in Santa Rosa. The shelter desperately needed lots of beautification on the inside – painting, changing lights, fixing bathrooms, and more. Of course we had little money to do the work. So I asked about volunteers and Jimmy jumped in to help. He had experience with “handyman” type work. Jimmy was an absolute delight to work with and be around – forever positive, high energy, always wanting to help, showing up on time and working until the job is done. When someone needed help, Jimmy was there.

I saw Jimmy last week at the Mary Isaak Center. I’ve not seen him for several years. Still on the streets, still struggling with addiction, but still positive, upbeat, and energetic. He said he feels safe at COTS. He wants help and said, “we all want help.” He said the food is good at COTS, in fact he’s gained nine pounds. He looks good and healthy. Jimmy is also bald, has a goatee, wears a tank top, and has lots of tattoos. He said people walk on the other side of the street when they see him because they’re afraid of the way he looks. That hurts Jimmy. He’s taking steps to get rid of his tattoos.

Like many of us, I’ve been guilty of judging people by their appearance. And when I took the time…when I “opened the book” and got to know their story, I saw I was wrong in how I pre-judged them. My parents also said, “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.” I got to know Jimmy and I’m glad I did – he has a heart of gold.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez