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.

Happy Thanksgiving,


What is trauma-informed, strength-based and client-centered care?

In the social service world, especially in the homeless arena, we often hear people talking about “a trauma-informed, strength-based, client-centered approach” to working with those experiencing homelessness. What does it mean and why is it important?

The 2019 Point in Time Count showed that 25% of those experiencing homelessness suffer from PTSD; 9% reported a traumatic brain injury; 34% have a history of domestic violence; 16% traded sex for money; and 38% suffer from alcohol and drug abuse. We also know that people who experience trauma are 15 times more likely to commit suicide; 3 times more likely to experience depression; and 4 times more likely to be an alcoholic or inject drugs.

This is who we serve at COTS. The trauma they suffer impacts every part of a person’s being – physical, mental, emotional, and social functioning.

Being traumainformed means that at COTS, we treat the “whole person,” understanding their triggers and coping mechanisms as a way to better understand the person and provide a path for their recovery. We have to be careful of our body language, tone of voice, choice of words, and our behavior. Homelessness itself is a risk factor for trauma given the many challenges that homeless individuals face – loss of social connectivity, increased threats, harm through victimization, exposure, and deterioration of health. Being trauma-informed also means we keep an awareness of trauma when developing programs, policies, and procedures in the shelter.

strength-based approach means to focus on someone’s inherent strengths, self-determination, and the resources they possess to help with their recovery and empowerment instead of focusing on their deficits or weaknesses. It views people as strong, resourceful, and resilient especially in the face of adversity, and gives them more credit for what they are capable of achieving than what we would typically do. It’s an asset-based approach that focuses on the positive.

Being client-centered means that the clients we work with in the shelter must take an active role in their case management and plan to find housing. The case manager plays a supportive and non-directive role and the shelter clients take responsibility and accountability for the choices they make. We do not work harder than the client is willing to work on themselves. That means we try to empower instead of enable.

These approaches work, and our wonderful staff put this into practice every day at the Mary Isaak Center. Leaving life on the streets and moving into housing requires courageous transformational change. Our staff are a major inspiration in that change.

Another fire and another heroic response

This fall, Sonoma County experienced another fire and another hugely heroic response from our community. I was not with COTS during the October 2017 fires but I can’t imagine that the response then was any different than the response this month – courageous and selfless.

In the book, Heroic Leadership by Chris Lowney, he says that “leadership is defined not by the scale of the opportunity but by the quality of the response and that one cannot control all of one’s circumstances, only one’s response to those circumstances.” I sound like a broken record when I say I continue to be humbled by the COTS community and family.

At COTS, our phone rang continuously with people asking “What do you need?” or “I have prepared meals, extra food, toiletries, dog food, blankets, linens, towels, sweatshirts, socks – who shall I ask for and when can I drop these off?” We had truckloads of gourmet cheese, eggs, meats, and dairy products. When the evacuation shelter in Petaluma closed, they gave us their extra sleeping cots, pillows, and blankets.

All of this generosity was vital to our work. Our shelter was at capacity. All 112 beds were filled and we were sleeping about 35 people in the dining room. Due to the fires and smoke, people came from the Joe Rodota Trail, encampments, the streets, or the evacuation centers when they closed. It was chaotic and we weren’t really prepared. But this is what we do – we care for people, and with everyone’s help and generosity, we managed.

At the end of the day, it’s not only about the bed provided or the meal served that makes COTS and our community so special. It will always be the people who make it special. The people are the motivators, the ones who inspire, and the ones who set the example of compassion, the common good, and helping a neighbor in need…during fires, during rain, and even on a perfect Sonoma day. On behalf of our Board of Directors and staff, thank you for being the people who make all of that happen – for our clients and our community.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez