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,

The Ability to “LeaderShift”

This has been a nonstop challenging year. The pandemic and all of its devastating consequences on a personal, economic, and social level. The credible and courageous protests around systemic racism. National politics and an election year filled with anxiety and anticipation. And now, the fires. As a business, how does COTS survive and thrive through all this change and uncertainty?

In his book, Leadershift – the 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace, John Maxwell says, “leaders today need to move faster, stay ahead, be able to see more than others, and able to see before others see. The more nimble, adaptable, and flexible we are, the more quickly we can move and change.” He says “adaptability does not mean conformity. Conformity means being average and refusing to stand out or capitalize on one’s uniqueness. Adaptability is being able to sense the shift in the wind direction and adjust to take advantage of that wind.” He also says, “leaders need to be comfortable with uncertainty and make shifts continually…and deal with uncertainty without losing focus. They must also allow for creativity, they must plan, and they must look for options and opportunities.”

The need to Leadershift is happening at COTS. We are updating our Strategic Plan (SP). It was created in 2018. And yes, only two years later, it already feels outdated. We have new staff, a better understanding of Housing First, more professionalism, more freedom to create and bring our best and passionate selves to work, and a profound belief that we will make a difference in the lives of those experiencing homelessness. We also want to make sure our updated SP reflects our desire to be a more diverse organization and that our culture, behavior, how we make decisions, and our goals reflect our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statement. Change of course always start with us first – how we individually think, behave, and treat Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion differently.

At COTS, we are also accepting reality, sometimes the harsh reality, during these complex times – no sugarcoating, especially when we communicate with our staff. In social services, because we can be more heart than head, we want to protect staff or the agency from dangers or uncomfortable realities. We need to bring reality into the conversation sooner than later and be upfront with the difficult part of our journey that we plan to take others on. If we don’t, we just set everyone up for failure and disappointment.

We also have to rely on our solid foundational values of integrity, respect, and accountability to ourselves, each other, and to those experiencing homelessness as we continue to change and evolve. I would add character and moral authority – how we live our lives and treat the sheltered and unsheltered – with authenticity, humility, and love. There is no compromise here regardless of how difficult the change.

And one more thing – besides looking for options and opportunities during these uncertain times, we as leaders should always be preparing for opportunities – strengthening our programs to better serve those experiencing homelessness, ensure positive impact in the community and social return on investment for our funders, and build strong administrative functions that support our programs and services. As the legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “when opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare.” COTS is preparing.

A Passionate Calling

Some of us have a job…a good job. It pays the bills and supports our family. We do the work well when we are there. When the workday is done so are we until the next day. We likely don’t take work home with us. Some of us have a career. It’s something we choose, excel at, love, and it can be measured by success such as money, a nice house, more freedom with our schedule, a nice car.

Then there are those that have a calling. A calling is about helping others – in non-profits, fire or law enforcement, law or medicine, public service, the hospitality and food service industry, and so much more. It is something that you have chosen or maybe has chosen you, that never leaves you even when the day is done…you take it home with you, is something you feel you must do, and is your purpose and why you exist. Your calling gives you energy, purpose, meaning, hope, and optimism. It inspires creativity and attracts others with positivity.

I see this calling every day at COTS. I know I often use the Mission Moment sections of my Virtual Coffee on our exceptional staff at COTS. But if you see what I see every day, you would too. Every Saturday, one of our shelter staff makes a big breakfast for our shelter residents – what you would make for your family when you have time on the weekends – omelets, pancakes, waffles, breads, fresh fruit, coffee, cereal. It’s John’s way to celebrate each person at our shelter. It’s important for our residents to have some sense of normalcy.

I see our case managers Julia and Christina teaching residents about sobriety and are so excited when residents show up, are engaged, and make progress. Of course, residents are enticed with ice cream and root beer floats when they arrive. Staff celebrate when a resident gets housed and then they help them set up their apartments – with linen, dishes, food, and whatever furniture we have. Shelter staff make sure residents take their medications, get the rest and medical care they so often need – and with all the love, attention, and care as if that resident was their own family member.

Of course, because our residents suffer from trauma, mental, physical, and emotional challenges, providing this love and care is often not easy. Residents’ behavior can be erratic, disappointing, threatening – they shout, swear, refuse to follow rules or their case management plans, or do not show up for meetings on time or at all. This is just part of what we do and what we expect. Likely, many of us know this having dealt with it on a personal level with a family member or friend. Giving up is not an option for our staff. It’s not who they are. A resident may feel hopeless and give up on themselves, but the staff won’t give up on them. Often, staff are the only hope for our residents. For some of our staff, they know the struggle, pain, and confusion because they have been in our resident’s shoes before. Thus, their commitment, dedication… their calling.

Philosopher Howard Thurman said, “don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I see our staff at COTS come alive everyday.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez