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.

This month’s newsletter is arriving earlier than usual, given the uncertainty we face today and my belief in the need to communicate our action steps around COVID-19 with our COTS family. Together, I know that we can meet the challenge of this moment and keep each other safe in the weeks and months to come.

All my best,

Virus Prevention Plan – Vigilance While Caring for Each Other

People experiencing homelessness already have compromised physical, mental, and emotional systems. Living on the streets or in encampments with poor hygiene and dietary habits only makes matters worse. For those coming into a shelter environment and living in a congregate environment with 100 other shelter residents, practicing “social distancing” is difficult. And because our staff work with our clients every day, we are taking the threat of a rapidly spreading virus very seriously and with an overabundance of caution.

Three weeks ago, we issued Virus Prevention Protocols for all staff, shelter residents, guests, and volunteers of COTS. We received input from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), The National Alliance to End Homelessness, The Petaluma Health Center, and Sonoma County Department of Health Services.

We are cleaning and wiping down shelter countertops, doors, sinks, and shower handles, and mopping floors with disinfectant multiple times a day. We installed a portable hand washing station outside the dining room and posted flyers throughout the shelter and bathrooms about washing your hands. We implemented new questions for new clients to the shelter such as if they’ve experienced shortness of breath, coughing, or fever within the last two weeks. Thankfully, we have a strong partnership with the Petaluma Health Center where we will refer those clients. We also ordered and installed more hand sanitizer dispensers, wipes, and other disinfectant supplies.

Staff are also wiping down high touch areas like keyboards, phones, desk surfaces, and chair handles. We will continue to refine our protocols as the situation changes.

In good times and in bad, our community relies on nonprofits to serve the most vulnerable. Our goal at COTS will remain the same – to get people off the streets and out of our shelter and into housing to realize stable, productive, and fulfilled lives. We’ve been through two fires before and we will get through this by being calm, thoughtful, and hyper-vigilant about health and safety. As humans, we are at our best when we stay interconnected and love and care for each other.

Ride-a-Long with Petaluma Police Department

Last week, COTS Outreach Specialist Jeff Schueller, Downtown Streets Team Director Karen Strolia, and myself accompanied Lt. Tim Lyons of the Petaluma Police Department (PPD) on his late night rounds of homeless encampments in Petaluma. It’s one thing to see the visible homeless walking the streets during the day but something totally different to see where they sleep at night and call home. Under highways, in thick brush, outside the entrance to businesses, empty homes, behind garbage containers, river banks, on top of buildings, and other very creative spaces…and often amongst much rubbish and filth. Lt. Lyons and one other police officer took three hours of their valuable time showing us over a dozen camps, and sadly, there were many more.

One person we met was from Alabama whose brother was a professional bass fisherman; another was living in a small wooden container and did odd jobs during the day for several businesses; another was living in the bushes with his dog and was a writer. Everyone we talked with did not want to come into a shelter. They preferred their freedom without rules. All had mental health challenges.

Lt. Lyons has been with PPD for thirty years and absolutely loves his job – and it shows. He was kind, caring, and very patient with everyone we met…and of course he knew their names. Some he had been working with for over twenty years. I asked Tim and Karen if they ever give up hope with the people on the streets, if some people just simply cannot be helped. And their response was an emphatic “never.” They firmly believe that everyone can be helped to lead stable and productive lives. Some just need special, more individualized services than others, but all can be helped.

As we moved from camp to camp, one thing became very clear – together with the Downtown Streets Team and Karen, PPD and truly caring people like Lt. Tim Lyons, Jeff Schueller, and our wonderful community, we can and will resolve homelessness in Petaluma.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez