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).

Please stay safe,

The Basics of Operating Mary Isaak Shelter

I often get questions from the community about how we operate our homeless shelter. Well, operating a homeless shelter is certainly not for the faint of heart, so let me share a few of our fundamental operating processes.

Accountability – Clients are admitted to our shelter for an initial period of 30 days. They are assigned a Case Manager (CM) within one week of admittance. Together, an Assessment is performed to determine where the client is and what challenges they want to address. An Individual Action Plan or IAP is then created with goals to achieve based on the Assessment. Their stay is extended in 30-day increments if they are making progress toward their goals – getting housing, employment, addressing their medical, mental health, addiction, or legal issues, etc. Accountability is critical for success. Shelter stays, however, cannot exceed 180 days. This is because the government believes that anything more than 180 days becomes Transitional Housing, and clients lose motivation to improve their situation, and that is not the intended purpose of a Housing First shelter. Funding then becomes jeopardized.

Coordinated Entry System (CES) – 50% of the beds at COTS or 40 beds, must be filled through the Coordinated Entry System (CES). This is a requirement of the government funding we receive. A person must get on the CES Waitlist, take an assessment to determine their medical and mental health vulnerability, and then are assigned a Vulnerability Index, with the higher scores (more vulnerable) being eligible for shelter. CES must also verify that a person is homeless through a process called Third Party Verification, such as communicating with other social service providers for written proof. Referrals from CES can take 48 hours. Unless we get the CES approval, we cannot allow people immediate access to those 40 shelter beds.

Use of the other 40 beds is determined by COTS and not CES, and does not require a Vulnerability Index.

Also, individuals coming into the shelter must be at least 18 years of age; take and pass a TB clearance; must not be a convicted sex offender, arsonist, or have a history of behaviors that would put others in jeopardy; agree to be nonviolent and live harmoniously with other residents; and agree to help maintain order and cleanliness in the shelter.

Safety – For safety reasons, we also have to be careful who we allow into the shelter. When COTS was a dry shelter – no alcohol or drugs – the shelter was much easier to operate, and client behavior was less complicated. Today, because the State and County have adopted the Housing First Model, shelters receiving government funding must be low barrier, meaning a wet shelter – allowing the use of drugs and alcohol. The clients coming in through CES have much higher needs with significant medical, mental health, and substance abuse challenges. We do not, however, receive funding that allows us to hire the appropriately trained staff needed to work with these high needs clients. Fentanyl, for example, has created troubling behaviors that most shelters are not trained to deal with.

Housing First – Our focus is getting people housed. Our Mission Statement says, “We assist those experiencing homelessness in finding and keeping housing, increasing self-sufficiency, and improving well-being.” This means that our responsibility is to assist people from encampments, the streets, and in shelters to get into housing and then help them stay there through various social services. We hold our clients in the shelter accountable to do just that.

We try to balance safety and compliance with flexibility and giving people 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances to get off the streets and into shelter. Afterall, it can be that 4th chance that can make all the positive difference in someone’s life.

Almost every Saturday, Gary and Judy Parker bring cereal to the Mary Isaak Center.

Spoonfuls of Love

We’ve all heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And while eggs, meat, bread, and fruit are part of the breakfast routine for many, cereal is still the King and Queen of breakfast. Did you know that the average American eats about 10 pounds or 160 bowls of cereal every year? WOW! Given that there are more than 300M people in the U.S., that’s a lot of, well, milk. Americans buy some 2.7 billion boxes of cereal each year, enough to stretch to the moon and back. And it appears that there is growing demand for healthier cereals – high fiber and grain based – versus sugary cereals.

Almost every Saturday, Gary and Judy Parker bring cereal to the Mary Isaak Center. They’ve been doing this for years. I spoke with them recently and asked them why they do this. They are vegetarians and they wanted to donate something that is in line with their values of healthy eating. They’ve been vegetarians for 50 years and married for 47 years. They go to Costco and buy the large boxes of healthy cereal – Raisin Bran, Cheerios, Bran Flakes. They said people are suffering so much and that there is nothing worse than being homeless. Every time they leave COTS, they feel better knowing that they helped someone eat healthier.

Our Shelter Manager Robin Phoenix said Gary and Judy give because they appreciate what we do to serve the homeless population. They set aside money every month to give to organizations they believe in. She shared with Gary and Judy that the cereal they buy for our residents makes a huge difference, is more to our clients’ liking, and makes them happy. Robin said they are a beautiful couple who want to share their good fortune and their values of healthy eating.

Giving is a very personal thing. When couples give together, it gives them an opportunity not only to connect with each other on issues and values that they care deeply about, but it also provides an opportunity for their relationship to grow. Giving creates togetherness. I saw that in Gary and Judy. They are a kind and caring couple who are deeply committed to helping those experiencing homelessness.

Cheerio to you Gary and Judy, and thank you so much for all that you do for COTS, our Mary Isaak Center, and for those experiencing homelessness.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez