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.

Please stay safe,

How to Budget During a Pandemic?

Budgeting during normal times is already difficult. We prepare our best estimate of revenues coming in and money spent to better serve those experiencing homelessness. Budgets can be conservative (at least for me) as we do not want to overestimate revenues and underestimate expenses and thus get ourselves in trouble. Now, on top of all this, comes COVID-19 and all its uncertainties.

We have learned a lot during this crisis. We have an amazing and loyal donor base; the many benefits of strong community partners like the City of Petaluma, Petaluma Health Center and Petaluma Valley Hospital, Kaiser Permanente and St. Joseph Health System; that our cherished volunteers are the backbone of our programs, especially the kitchen; and how much we need to ensure that we have Succession Plans in place for key positions at COTS should something happen during a crisis. That is just good business to help maintain continuity and minimize disruptions.

We can also predict what we think will happen post-COVID that will impact the budget. The Recession will last 2+ years; high unemployment; maybe a shrinking non-profit sector; higher levels of homelessness, domestic violence, food insecurity, and mental health needs; reduced government funding due to budget deficits; and sadly, the likelihood for more disasters – fires and waves of COVID.

So how do we survive and thrive during COVID and prepare a good budget? At COTS, we are looking at our Mission and Vision Statements to make sure it is still relevant…and we believe it is. We are getting clearer on our core services so that we efficiently maximize our Mission – getting people housed. And because of likely government reductions, we are strengthening our processes around private donations and contributions. Also, we do not want to bring our loyal supporters together in one large room for our annual COTS Hour until there is a vaccine. So we are strengthening our digital platform to consider having the event virtually so people feel safe and comfortable. We also know that financial stability and having adequate cash reserves is crucial, so that is a priority. And we know that our staff is what makes our success happen. So we included Training & Development in our budget to ensure they have the necessary Management and Leadership and other training to do their jobs effectively.

We are also a business, so we budget to have more revenues than expenses…to help save for that rainy day and to make sure we have funds to replace large and expensive items.

Our Fiscal Year begins July 1, so we are in good shape to have our budget approved before then. In the meantime, we will continue to fine-tune our budget to be as realistic, conservative, pro-active, and flexible as possible during these unprecedented times.

Domestic Violence and COVID

For many, our home is a safe haven where we can escape the craziness of the world and recharge. But for some, home can be a dangerous place if they are a victim of Domestic Violence (DV) – predominantly women, children, seniors, and LGBTQ+. Now add in COVID, Shelter in Place, growing unemployment, financial stress, scarcity of community resources, the fear of getting sick, prisons releasing inmates early and the stage is set for more Domestic Violence. Sadly, DV especially impacts marginalized populations, especially if one is an essential worker that has to work, take public transportation, on the lower scale of pay, and lives with multiple families in crowded conditions. The inequalities just keep growing.

We know that DV is an underreported crime. With COVID, the victim is isolated with the abuser and unable to escape. Previously, victims could share their abuse with their pastor, friends, co-workers, or neighbors, but not with Shelter in Place. Previously and as Mandated Reporters, teachers could observe children or medical providers could observe their patients and notify authorities if they suspected something.

Recently, we had a couple that lived in their car and came into our shelter for lunch and dinner. Our staff noticed that the woman had bruises on her arms. Shelter residents, especially our males, also noticed and wanted to confront her abuser. She of course had excuses for the bruises. Thanks to our caring and very experienced Outreach Staff, they created a plan to separate the abuser from the victim long enough to give the victim information to call the County Victims Services Department 24 x 7 if she wanted help. They were also able to set up medical appointments with a medical provider at the Petaluma Health Center. This is very good and we are hopeful.

DV victims are often in a dilemma – do I stay and get abused or leave with no where to go and end up in a shelter? So they stay because they are afraid to leave. What awful options.

As a homeless shelter, a concerned citizen, or a neighbor, our responsibility is to be on the lookout and report suspicious activity or behavior. Now, this is more important than ever.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez