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.

Merry Christmas,

What I learned in the last twelve months

Closing the year is a traditional time to step back and reflect on one’s successes and challenges, to make resolutions, and to determine what we have learned. I’ve learned lots of things every day at COTS – from our clients experiencing homelessness, our wonderful staff and board of directors, and our generous community. So…I’d like to share just two of those learnings.

The first is that homelessness does not define who we are. Instead, it is a point in time for someone, hopefully a rare or brief occurrence. When we say, “Those homeless” or “the homeless” or “them,” it is a derogatory and disrespectful way to describe someone experiencing homelessness. The words “those” or “them” can put a distance between us and “them” and, in a way, from the responsibility of helping to solve the issue. It can also put people into a category and thus become a source of prejudice much like, sadly, someone’s race, religion, or socioeconomic status. Having worked in a faith-based environment for ten years before coming to COTS, I believe that we are all God’s children and we should strive to treat people with dignity and respect. Saying “people experiencing homelessness” has helped me to see the issue with much more grace, dignity, and love.

The second thing I’ve learned is that homelessness is complicated. There are never just one or two reasons why a person experiences homelessness. It can happen to any one of us because of a divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse, job loss, mental health challenges, physical disability, death of a loved one, a traumatic event, and more. In the same way, there are never just one or two silver bullets to solve homelessness. And while some define homelessness as the absence of a home, we also can’t build our way out of homelessness because we don’t have the billions necessary to make that happen. At the same time, more housing is only part of the solution. Case management and mental health support is also necessary to wellness and sustainability once in a home.

This is enough to keep a person up every night. But we are COTS and our mission is to transition people from homelessness to a permanent home. We do it, along with our community partners, to make our community a better place to be.

Our cherished family member

This week, I attended funeral services for special member of our COTS family – Cecily Kagy. Cecily was one of our Homeless Street Outreach Workers. It was a beautiful celebration of Cecily’s life, and while it was a sad occasion because we lost a loved one, it was also a story of someone who touched so many lives.

Pastor Chris and Cecily’s family and friends talked about her many gifts she so generously gave and of her challenges. I have often said that working with those experiencing homelessness is a messy business. Well…being human is messy and complicated. This messiness and the imperfect way we do things is what makes us all human. And that is what made Cecily so special. Instead of going around barriers, she often charged right up the middle. That was the essence of who she was. Rules didn’t matter if it meant she could get a person off the streets and into a house or shelter or into treatment.

I had the honor of accompanying Cecily on her Street Outreach into homeless encampments, under bridges, near streams, into broken-down cars and RVs. Regardless of where we went, she was always the same – positive, with a deep love and compassion for others, a fierce loyalty and advocacy for her clients regardless of who she was talking to. She would get excited when telling me about bringing a person off the streets and into housing. She would go to great lengths to help someone, including using her own car to drive a client into COTS who hadn’t showered in years. She had a profound respect for the dignity of those she served.

For many of us, the sooner we can own our own imperfections, vulnerabilities, and our edges, the sooner we can stop judging other’s imperfections and vulnerabilities. One reason why Cecily was so loving and caring with others is that she owned and made fun of her own human imperfections. She understood those she served because she had been in their shoes before. That is what made her unique. She could relate and share her own struggles with what they were going through.

Cecily – while we may not be so fortunate again to hear your booming laugh, or see you break into a huge smile, or hear about all the people you loved and served, your legacy and the changes you inspired will live on. We will always honor our time with you. We love you Cecily.

Cecily is now in heaven with two special people: her brother and her mother. She can also do something she has long been wanting to do – give them a hug.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez