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,

Saying NO is good business

In early November, the City of Santa Rosa issued a request for bids to provide shelter and other homeless services in Santa Rosa. The award would provide $3-4M to the selected operator. COTS did not submit a bid. Why did we pass on this opportunity to potentially expand operations into Santa Rosa and increase our revenues by over 50%? Three words – Focus, Niche, No.

Focus – Many believe that homelessness is primarily a housing problem, and that housing is the foundation for life improvement. The Housing First (HF) philosophy believes that people need a place to live before addressing other critical elements like employment, mental and physical health, and social skills. Thus, HF is based on the principles of quickly connecting people to housing without barriers (lack of income, unemployment, addiction), and then once housed, to provide intense wrap-around case management services to address the issues that led to their homelessness.

Thus, if the primary solution to homelessness is housing and support services, then this is where our focus must be. Operating a shelter and other services in Santa Rosa would completely take us away from that focus. We need to concentrate on what’s in front of us and make a positive impact there – People’s Village (our Tiny Homes Project), the Steamer Landing Injunction and our potential solution to that issue; and Project Homekey and more permanent supportive housing. Submitting a bid would require much strategic planning by staff and the full board and would disrupt our current trajectory. While disruption can be good, chaos is not, and that is what would happen with a bid submittal.

Niche – COTS is a boutique and not a department store. Boutiques focus on excellent customer service, are knowledgeable about their product offerings, pride themselves in being innovative and best in class, and have well trained and professional staff. Customers know what they can expect when they walk into a boutique versus a national department store with an institutional feeling. Boutiques don’t try to be all things to all people. Businesses that do, sacrifice their own boundaries or desires, and have unclear vision and strategies. Sometimes businesses feel pressured to launch a product or service that is outside their strategic goals and competencies. Boutiques, however, specialize.

Our niche is Petaluma and the South Sonoma County area. This is our customer base, and we know the sheltered and unsheltered. We’ve built trust and credibility over the past 32 years. We have no intentions of damaging that trust with those we serve and our valued community. Our brand and messaging would be confusing and inauthentic if we expanded north. And we know that those we serve trust the expertise of a specialized and focused provider who pours all their energy and resources into Petaluma.

No – Saying NO can be the hardest part of business. No is not a dirty word. It’s impossible to pursue every opportunity. Steven Jobs (the Apple guy) once said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

To execute well, a business must be crystal clear on its vision, strategy, and goals. And that means staying true to your vision.

Thus, before one says no to opportunities, one needs to first say yes to their vision and strategy. That will keep you from diverting your precious time, energy, and resources and take you from being just good to being truly great.

Being Grateful

Petaluma is embarking on three major projects to house those experiencing homelessness – People’s Village (Tiny Homes); the Steamer Landing Injunction process, and Governor Newsom’s Project Homekey to purchase hotels for permanent supportive housing. These three initiatives require significant collaboration and constant communication to make it happen.

I am so grateful for our Petaluma partners without which none of this would happen. The City of Petaluma Team of City Manager Peggy Flynn, Assistant City Manager Brian Cochran, Housing Manager Karen Shimizu, and the rest of their team are boldly and fearlessly leading the way. Our Petaluma Police Department and their team of excellent, caring, and responsive officers. Annie Nicol, FNP, PA, Director of Homeless Services for the Petaluma Health Center. Annie has been doing this work for decades and knows every person experiencing homelessness in Petaluma and has a heart of gold. The SAFE Team (Specialized Assistance for Everyone) and Downtown Streets Team who are everywhere in Petaluma assisting the homeless with care, patience, and love. Homeless consultant Andrew Hening, whose expertise, experience, and strategic vision keep us on track and make our team even stronger. And of course, our community whose generosity, patience, and understanding make much of this happen.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, thank you everyone for all of your support and leadership. We are making progress.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez