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.

My best,
Chuck

Better Meeting the Needs of Shelter Clients

Four months ago as our world was quickly changing due to the pandemic, COTS staff began conversations around re-visioning how we could enhance and improve our shelter services. We knew that homelessness could significantly increase and we wanted a better way to build on our successes, ensure alignment with Housing First, and create a sense of urgency and accountability by our clients to transition from the streets or the shelter to a permanent home. Well, we are excited to share with you the changes that will take effect August 1.

We are implementing a new and improved Client Enrichment Program that will include Rent Right (remember that?), budgeting, financial literacy, housing search, credit repair, employment readiness, and basic computer skills. Eileen Morris, who created Rent Right and more, will be our new Client Enrichment Manager leading this program. We are absolutely delighted to have her back in this role. Eileen will be transferring from her current position in the Development Department and will be recruiting many volunteers – hopefully many of you reading this Virtual Coffee – to assist her in the program. Holding clients accountable as they work to achieve housing will be a core component of this program.

Because almost 40% of our clients suffer from alcohol/substance abuse challenges, we created a recovery option program called Pathways. This will include a 21-Day Sobriety Challenge for unsheltered individuals who would like to sleep in the dining hall and access COTS services with the hope that they can access our shelter beds if they stay sober for 21 Days. It also includes Recovery Maintenance Group based on the 12-Step Program; Pathways Shelter Beds where a portion of the shelter is only for those who are in recovery; and Pathways Housing which will designate a portion of our COTS Housing for those in recovery.

Our shelter will also be very housing focused and thus utilize a “sunset date policy.” This means every 30 days we will review the resident’s Individual Action Plan to see if they are making progress towards their goals of obtaining housing. This 30-day review emphasizes urgency and accountability, which is often lacking when a shelter stay is viewed as on-going. We will also have computer stations in the lobby that will only be used for housing and job search during normal business hours. Clients are also expected to assist with shelter cleanliness (chores) based on their physical and mental abilities. This participation adds a sense of pride and participation in keeping the shelter clean and is also a good training in the basic living skills needed to live independently in a home.

We will also partner with Legal Aid of Sonoma County to help remove legal barriers to obtain or maintain permanent housing.

Lastly, to decrease transmission of the flu/virus and other diseases with congregate living, we are reducing the number of shelter beds from 112 to 80. We believe that with the improved service offerings and a focus on client accountability and a sense of urgency, we will serve just as many people as if we have 112 beds.

Our re-visioned shelter will operate more efficiently and offer our clients a more dignified and supportive experience. We hope you will consider volunteering with Eileen. Please feel free to contact her at emorris@cots.org.

Shelter Case Manager Christina Madden, right, with Shelter Services Manager Robin Phoenix, left

A Passion and Calling for Recovery

It would be hard to miss our shelter case manager Christina Madden, SUDC. She is full of life, forever optimistic and hopeful, and a fierce advocate for her shelter clients and helping them to become clean and sober.

I sat with Christina last week to learn more about her, her passion to help people in recovery, and our Pathways Program mentioned in this Virtual Coffee. She said she fell in love with COTS and their programs and staff in 2014 when she started. She left a few years ago and thankfully is now back with us. She shared that the #1 reason people become clean and sober is that they want to be in connection. They want to heal their relationships with their kids, family, or friends and are tired of being alone. Christina said social connections are a significant part of recovery – wanting to heal, to be in love or to be loved.

Christina said while some may not find recovery, there is always hope. What she finds so rewarding is when she sees the light bulb inside go on – when people make that shift from head to heart – when they feel it, see it, and then the change starts to happen. She often sees people in the community that she helped ten years ago and they are still clean, in school, married, or with their family. That makes all the challenges and heartbreaks worth her life’s work.

Of course, there is the relapse part of this work. While it can be viewed a normal part of recovery, it should not be viewed as a necessary part, as people do recover without frequent relapses. Christina said relapse is something we should not minimize. It’s real.

So what are those initials after her name – SUDC? That is Substance Use Disorder Counselor, a grueling certificate program that requires many hours of classroom instruction in Counseling, Case Management, Pharmacology, Addiction Psychology and Sociology, and Chemical Dependency; two thousand hours of internship work, and the passing of a national exam. And all of this costs thousands of dollars to obtain. Christina is serious about her profession as a certified counselor and mental health professional, and it shows.

We are thrilled to have Christina on our COTS team and grateful for her leadership, her passion for the Pathways Program, and her advocacy and love for her clients. Thank you Christina. We are happy that you decided to come back to COTS.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez