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).

My best,

Shopping Carts – Not Just for Groceries

A sight that always makes my heart sad is to see a person experiencing homelessness pushing a shopping cart. There is no human dignity in that. For many, a shopping cart is what we use at the store for things we buy. But for those without a home, a cart “acts as kind of a life raft.”

The most common use of that “life raft” is the most obvious – to carry their possessions. I see carts around the Mary Isaak Center with stuff that makes no sense to me – cans, a broom, frisbee, BBQ grill, tires. But those things may have a sentimental value – a reminder of better times when they had a home. Or they may be insurance for the future – things they may need or could sell. Perhaps it’s because they’ve lost so much in their lives – their job, home, family, friends and children, that they gather things just to hold onto something. The carts also carry blankets, cardboard, sleeping bags, tarps and things they need at night to survive, and to stay warm and dry.

What’s not so obvious is that they also use the carts for protection and safety at night. Flipping it on its side or back to use as shelter to protect themselves from people who want to steal from or harm them. It’s an unfortunate reality for those without a home. Carts are also used to carry their pets. What would you do if you lost your home or were evicted from your apartment and had pets? Pets are like family to many of us, including those without a home, so you take them with you. And because those without a home walk much of the day, the carts help provide rest for the pets. Carts are also used to collect cans, bottles, and other items to sell at redemption centers.

And sadly, carts can also be used as a type of walker. Many unsheltered have physical disabilities that make walking difficult. And because libraries and other public facilities were closed during the pandemic, there were fewer places for the unsheltered to go to, sit down, take refuge, and rest. It’s one thing to push a cart in a store with smooth flooring or a paved parking lot but try pushing a cart on bumpy uneven surfaces. It’s hard and tiring.

Taking a shopping cart from a retailer is theft. Replacing carts is expensive. But many retailers don’t press charges against people without financial means. There is also a compassionate side with retailers, law enforcement, and others that respond to complaints about the homeless and shopping carts. I know that because I witness it daily at the Mary Isaak Center by our wonderful and loving Petaluma community – our own retailers and businesses, Police, Fire, EMT, Medical community, and so many others. They have big and warm hearts and don’t want to make a difficult situation worse.

I don’t know what the answer is with shopping carts. But maybe one solution to not seeing shopping carts by those without a home is simple – kind of – let’s get everyone in a home or a warm and safe living environment that works for them.

A shot in the arm…

This month, COTS had its first COVID vaccine clinic. We had 80 doses to give, and we used all 80…for the sheltered and unsheltered, some COTS staff, community volunteers, and the general public. This was the single dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine. This clinic was in large part due to the heroic volunteer efforts led by Dr. Loie Sauer MD, Annie Nichol FNP from the Petaluma Health Center, the Sonoma County Medical Association, Fox Home Health Care, and a team of nurses, a dentist, retired physicians, and so many more.

Our plan was to vaccinate many of our sheltered and unsheltered. We did some, but not as many as we’d hoped. They have the same questions, concerns, and hesitations as the general public. Trust is paramount and they do not trust the medical community or anyone in authority telling them what to do. Their daily struggle to survive, find food, water, and safety overrides most everything else, including a “little virus” that just doesn’t seem as critical as the other stuff they face. Some have mental health issues like paranoia that prevent them from trusting the vaccine.

Like others, conspiracy theories also prevent the unsheltered from getting a vaccine. “They put a special dye in it and it’s like small robots going into your system that helps change your DNA…” or “they are putting a chip in you and you are going to be someone’s guinea pig…” or “the disease is caused by 5G cell towers…”

Of course, it’s difficult for anyone living outside, whose health is already compromised, to follow public health recommendations – social distancing, hygiene, staying at home when you have no home, or seeing your doctor. The unsheltered also lack internet access to sign up with online vaccine portals, lack transportation to vaccination sites, or don’t have the right information about vaccines.

The 2020 annual Point in Time Count showed 2,745 sheltered and unsheltered in Sonoma County. That was pre-COVID and I am certain that number has increased. We have a long way to go to get everyone vaccinated. But this was a good start. Thank you everyone who made this pop-up clinic happen. We are grateful and appreciate you.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez