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,

Data Conundrum

Nonprofits face lots of data conundrums. They must show program impact and deliverables to private donors, foundations, and government agencies that financially support them. Boards of Directors want data as part of their governance responsibility. And Accounting, Human Resources, Fundraising, Grants, and Programs need data to monitor their performance. The result is that different stakeholders want different data to make different decisions. And collecting the data can be cumbersome, confusing, or based on complicated formulas. Doing this every month becomes an onerous and dreaded chore that no one looks forward to – a burden. And what often happens is data drift, where we can’t decide what to measure or what’s important, so we try and measure everything. And that is a waste of time and staff resources.

But we need the right data for several reasons – to understand if our current programs and activities are achieving their intended results; to drive improvement; to communicate a common understanding and language to various stakeholders on what we intend to achieve and how we’ll do that; to advocate for more community support; and of course, to accomplish our goals. Good, accurate, and timely data should reveal what happened (descriptive); why it happened (diagnostic); what will happen next (predictive); and inform the user what they should do about the results (prescriptive). The data should also be easy and simple to get.

As businesses change, grow, and mature, so too must their data needs and what to measure. Homelessness has changed over the years and the data we collect, analyze, and make decisions from also need to change. The Housing First model has resulted in a very different population served at COTS. We see the most difficult clients – those with severe and persistent mental health issues, physical disabilities, substance abuse challenges, and social and behavioral issues. As much as we offer services to help improve their situation, many simply have no interest. The Housing First model calls for removal of barriers to shelter entry and then to provide services without any mandates to accept them. While housing is the solution to homelessness and will always be our hope, it may not be their hope and thus it is not realistic to believe that many will get housed. With the high cost of living, limited affordable housing, and low income of many of our clients, housing is not always a realistic goal. Often, success for COTS is getting someone off the streets, into a shelter with a warm bed, hot food, and laundry and shower facilities with the hope of restoring some dignity and comfort in their lives…even for a short time. While the hoped-for destination is housing, the journey is just as important if not more so for those not wanting help or housing but just some interim relief from the chaos of being unsheltered.

Therefore, data such as cost per person housed; number of households diverted from homelessness; length of stay in the shelter; or number of people participating in our programs is no longer practical, useful, or relevant.

Iain De Jong, in his book, The Book on Ending Homelessness, says “the three metrics that matter most to homeless service providers are: (1) How many people are homeless? (2) How many people moved into permanent housing? (3) How many people fell back into homelessness after being housed? If one captures these three metrics remarkably well, then the industry would move forward leaps and bounds.”

That’s a good start and as it relates to the Program and Services COTS offers to those experiencing homelessness, I would add one more – the breakdown by race/ethnicity of those we serve. It’s critical that we also address systemic race issues within our homeless system of care. It’s the right thing to do.

Delta Variant

Just when we thought COVID was on the decline in Sonoma County, here comes the delta variant and a surge in positive cases. But thanks to Human Resources Director Cat Higgins and Shelter Services Manager Robin Phoenix and her team, COTS never let their guard down. Cat and Robin insisted on following CDC and Sonoma County Public Health guidelines for safety, sanitation, testing, isolating, and masking in a congregate living shelter.

The results have been simply amazing. As of this writing, only two positive cases at COTS and the Mary Isaak Center – one shelter resident that had a vaccine and another shelter resident who did not show any symptoms. One of those cases was transported to the Alternative Care Site (ACS) and we are still waiting for the test results from the other case.

All shelter residents are required to show proof of vaccination or have a negative test result within 72 hours of coming into the shelter. Robin also re-instituted the “red zone” which is a quarantined area for people awaiting test results. Also, Public Health was at the Mary Isaak Center last week testing every resident for COVID and also providing vaccinations. Only one resident refused to get tested and was exited from the shelter. And so far, all the test results of the residents were negative.

Moreover, Robin communicates with Sonoma County Public Health, Petaluma Health Center, and Petaluma’s Police Department, City Manager’s Office, and the new SAFE (Specialized Assistance For Everyone) Team about our safety protocols and any new infections. It’s important that we communicate with our partners.

Cat, Robin, and her team deserve major thanks, kudos, and appreciation for keeping staff and shelter residents safe. It’s not been easy, comfortable, or convenient. But it’s difficult to argue with the results. Thank you, Cat, Robin, and team for leading the way.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez