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,

People’s Village resident Gigi standing in the doorway of her unit

Autumn – a time to celebrate our successes

I love Autumn. The weather changes, leaves fall, and rain is on the way (I hope). It’s also a time to pause, reflect on what we’ve accomplished this year, and to be grateful for our successes…and also our challenges because that’s how learn and grow. Although I’ve shared some successes with you, I’d like to highlight four major accomplishments just so we can celebrate how far we’ve come this year in accomplishing our Mission at COTS, where we assist those experiencing homelessness in finding and keeping housing, increasing self-sufficiency, and improving well-being.

Created More Housing Options – Thanks to our cherished partnership with the City of Petaluma, we created People’s Village (PV), a 25-unit tiny home village on the Mary Isaak Campus. Twenty-five chronically homeless adults were taken off the streets and into PV, where they receive meals, showers, case management, and help on their pathway to housing. Of course, we’ve had challenges, but anything worthwhile is never easy.

And thanks to another partnership with the City of Petaluma and Burbank Housing, we are working to open the Studios at Montero (SAM) in Petaluma in early Spring of 2023. This is part of Governor Newsom’s Project Homekey that provides local government agencies with funds to purchase and rehabilitate housing – including hotels and motels and convert them into permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness. SAM has 60 studio apartments for the chronically homeless.

Improving Well-being – Health care plays a critical role in solving homelessness. CalAIM (California Advancing and Innovating Medi-Cal) is another State of California innovation to improve the quality of life and health outcomes of some of California’s most vulnerable residents, such as individuals experiencing homelessness. We will begin providing and billing for CalAIM services on January 1, 2023. CalAIM combines traditional medical care with non-medical services for the homeless, such as help with developing a housing plan or with housing search; assistance with housing documentation needed for leasing a rental unit, including security deposits; landlord education and tenant advocacy; and case management for help with behaviors that may jeopardize their housing. CalAIM won’t be easy, and we estimate it will take us at least two years before we feel comfortable learning a whole new medical language and way of caring for our clients. But we believe CalAIM is a win for Medi-Cal to better serve its members/enrollees; for health care providers to provide urgent and preventative care for their patients in the proper setting; for the sheltered and unsheltered to receive more comprehensive services; and for COTS to keep our clients healthy and housed long term.

More Accountability and Action – We’ve struggled with the Housing First (HF) approach. It’s core principles include choice or self-determination, meaning that getting case management, help for their substance abuse/addiction, mental health, lifestyle choices, or other issues that led to their homelessness are optional. Our experience shows that given a choice, most choose not to receive help. And that only results in people cycling in and out of shelters year after year. Staff get frustrated, and taxpayers get frustrated because the homeless problem is not getting better. No one wins.

Thus, we changed our model of care. All shelter residents must keep their appointments with their case manager, have a housing plan, and actively work toward housing. And if that doesn’t work for them, then COTS is not the place for them. In actuality, we’ve gone back to what worked before at COTS – a housing readiness approach. That is, a gradual process of addressing the issues that led to one’s homelessness before getting housing. Accountability and action are key. And this is confirmed by Governor Newsom halting $1B in homeless funding because of his frustration with the lack of progress and the lack of accountability for results. And guess what…it’s working again.

Our Amazing COTS Team and Work Culture – This summer, COTS was awarded “One of the Best Places to Work in Sonoma County” by the North Bay Business Journal (NBBJ). And for the 3rd year in a row, our July 2022 Employee Engagement Survey received an overwhelming satisfaction score by our team members. We worked hard to create a strong, safe, professional, and fun filled culture where people can come to work and do what they do best, and also feel they are contributing to the Mission of COTS. To be our best, and to provide the best care for those experiencing homelessness, we have to have the best people to do this difficult work. And having a great culture makes all that happen. So often, we hear businesses being measured by revenue, market share, or products sold. And while that is good, just as important are metrics like quality of leadership, culture, and staff satisfaction. After all, it’s the people and culture that ultimately drive the numbers and results.

So, in this season of gratitude, let’s remember all the goodness in our lives, even when things aren’t so perfect. COTS, our amazingly talented team, and our community partners have accomplished much to end homelessness in Petaluma. And while we have more work to do, let’s celebrate and be grateful for what we’ve accomplished together.

Happy Holidays,

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez