Chuck's Virtual Coffee - December 2022

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,
Chuck

Farewell…

This is my last Virtual Coffee. I am retiring at the end of December, or as I prefer to say, redirecting my energies and passions. My goal in starting these Coffees in January, 2019, was to raise awareness and educate all of us about those experiencing homelessness. In doing so, I tried to go inside these wonderful humans to better understand who they are and how they became homeless. There is goodness in each one of their souls. I also tried to share the inner workings of COTS, and the homeless systems of care in our government. I have learned so much from writing these Coffees – from research, reading volumes of data, and most importantly, listening to and asking many questions of our fellow team members at COTS. They are the true experts. In return, I hope they learned a little something from me.

I would like to briefly thank some people for making my four years at COTS the best and most rewarding professional experience ever.

Bill Gabbert, our fabulous board president, and genuine soul. Thank you for being the best board president a CEO could ask for. Bill and I met formally every week, and then often again on the phone. Nothing ever happened unless Bill was first informed. We had an amazing trust and faith in each other. We also had an agreement – no surprises. Bill supported me in all the crazy and necessary changes we made to make COTS a better place to be. He also supported me during my mistakes. Of course, as a smart businessman and human, he also wanted to know why, and always had questions so he could better understand. Thank you, Bill, for always being there for me.

To our many fabulous community members and leaders in Sonoma County and beyond – our donors, friends, investors, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and businesses – thank you for always supporting COTS. Petaluma has it going and if one wants to know what a close-knit, progressive, and caring community looks and feels like, and also how a community rallies around each other, then come to Petaluma. Petalumans rock.

And to our dear COTS team members who make the magic happen…every single day. You are the most kind, loving, professional, competent, fun, and caring humans I have every worked with. I will be forever grateful for what you taught me over the last four years. I love you all.

And finally, on a personal note. I am native Hawaiian, born and raised in the Islands. Many of us know the word Aloha as a greeting – hi or how are you. But to the Islanders, Aloha is so much more than a greeting. It’s how you live your life. It’s a North Star. The authentic meaning of Aloha is to live a life full of love, with a heart full of gratitude and joy…for yourself and for those around you. It means having respect for others, and to live with grace, kindness, truthfulness, and patience. To work for unity, goodness, and an understanding of others…and to do all that with an abundance of humility.

Our world has become polarized, divided, and even angry. Being mean spirited is almost a sport. What happened to truth, respect for our differences, a grace filled and compassionate society, and the common good? Our world needs more Aloha. Of course, we are all human and sometimes we don’t show up as our best selves. But we can certainly strive to Live Aloha – with ourselves, with each other, and with those experiencing homelessness.

With so much love, hope, and Aloha,

chuck

Mission Moment

Welcome Chris Cabral. I am so happy that you are our next CEO at COTS. I can speak for our COTS team and board of directors that we are thrilled to have you. I will be cheering you on every step of the way.


Chuck's Virtual Coffee - November 2022

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,
Chuck

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,
chuck

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez


Chuck's Virtual Coffee - October 2022

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,
Chuck

2022 Annual Point in Time (PIT) Count

Last month, we received the results of the Annual Point in Time Count (PIT) done on February 25, 2022. 2,893 homeless individuals were counted between 5am and 10am. This is a 5% increase from the PIT of 2,745 taken in 2020.

This is frustrating. My colleague homeless services providers in Sonoma County work hard. They are smart, innovative, compassionate, work very well together, and always try to do the right things. Of course, we could minimize the results by saying, it could have been worse given COVID. Regardless, our community is also frustrated with the money spent on solving this ever-growing issue.

Why Do This?
The PIT Count is the only source of national data on sheltered and unsheltered homeless and is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This data helps the federal government better understand homelessness, and helps local communities in their strategic planning, capacity building, and advocacy campaigns to prevent and end homelessness.

The Count is done in each community and collects information on individuals and families residing in shelters, sleeping on the streets, in cars, abandoned properties, and other places not meant for human habitation.

Some Of The 2022 Results For Sonoma County:

  • 5% – increase in homelessness from 2020.
  • 33% – homeless that were multi-racial, Black, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Pacific Islander.
  • Gender breakdown – 63% were male, 35% female, and 2% transgender/gender non-binary. Females were 27% in 2020.
  • Primary causes of homelessness – Job loss (23%); Argument with family/friend (11%); Divorce/separation (10%); Eviction (9%).
  • 32% – first time experiencing homelessness.
  • 6% – homeless for 0-30 days.
  • 16% – homeless for 1-6 months.
  • 9% – homeless for 7-11 months.
  • 43% – increase in chronically homeless from 2020 (508 to 725).
  • 42% – had at least one disabling condition (developmental, HIV/AIDS, physical or mental impairment).
  • 40% – suffer from drug or alcohol abuse.
  • 40% – suffer from psychiatric or emotional conditions.
  • 36% – suffer from PTSD.
  • 20% – not interested in housing.
  • 17% – history of foster care.

So, What Does This All Mean?
Shelters will always play an important role. The PIT showed that 6% were homeless for less than 30 days, while 25% were homeless between 1 – 11 months. 32% said it was their first-time experiencing homelessness. Often, many just need a place to stay for a short period to help get them back on their feet. However, while mental health, substance abuse, and medical problems are a risk factor for homelessness (cause), being homeless is also a risk factor for those problems. Drugs are everywhere on the streets and often used as a coping mechanism. And the stress of daily survival takes a toll on one’s medical and mental health. Moreover, newly homeless can normalize being homeless very quickly and adapt to the lifestyle. As a shelter operator, we need to ensure that we reach the newly homeless immediately before they adapt to the homeless lifestyle and all that goes with it. We just need to make sure that we are staffed appropriately with trained professionals and have the adequate number of staff needed to do the work.

More focus on prevention. There are many life situations that add to homelessness. Like job loss, divorce, cost of living, inflation, the long-term impact of adverse childhood experiences, mental health and drug/alcohol abuse, illnesses, and domestic violence. As a society, we also need to focus on the social determinants to health if we are to have any chance at ending homelessness. Social determinants are the conditions in which people are born into, grow, live, and work as well as the interrelated social and economic systems that shape their lives. They include income, education, job opportunities, literacy skills, access to nutritious food and health care, safe housing and transportation, neighborhoods lived in, and racism, discrimination, and violence. However, just promoting or fixing one or two of those disparities in the homeless won’t eliminate the other disparities or inequities.

More housing options. There is more housing on the way, and most is geared to the chronically homeless. Six housing projects will open in 2022-2023 in Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Guerneville, Rohnert Park, Healdsburg, and Sonoma. Moreover, the County and various cities have opened safe parking, managed encampments, and tiny home villages in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Petaluma, and Sonoma. To successfully address this issue, we must continue to offer a range of housing solutions. There is no one silver bullet. And what we’ve learned from our People’s Village (tiny homes) program is that not everyone is a fit for permanent housing. Some just want the independence of being homeless and without the responsibilities of being a renter.

Treatment First. Given that 40% of the homeless suffer from drug and alcohol abuse and psychiatric or emotional conditions, we have to do a better job as a society in providing treatment. Just ask the case managers in our shelter or People’s Village, and they will tell you the number is more like 90%. Yes, you are probably tired of often hearing this, but we simply need more licensed mental health providers and more detox and treatment centers in Sonoma County.

A generational challenge. Homelessness will not go away next year or in five years. It’s complicated. As one of our residents once said to me, “Charles – we are all broken and imperfect people.” While we see glimpses of a wonderful human being in each person we serve, we also see where the diseases of mental health and/or substance abuse has control of that human. But we cannot give up hope. After all, the person we serve is someone’s brother, sister, mother, or father, grandparent, or friend. And getting them treatment and into one of several housing options is the most humane thing to do. And with California’s smart investments in more housing (Project Homekey), CalAIM (expanding Medi-Cal services to the homeless), and the CARE Court, we are headed in the right direction.

Unfortunately, ending homelessness will just take more time and more investments.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez


Lisa's Story

Eight years ago, Lisa came to the Mary Isaak Center for the first time due to domestic violence.

“When I came here, it was a blessing,” she says. “I was able to focus on healing, plus getting my life in order, because I was dysfunctional before I came here. They helped me to stand on my feet, get my self-esteem back, grow from my experience, and to be able to see that, as a woman, I could step out of it and be a survivor.

Even then, Lisa was determined to turn her life around. “I ended up volunteering in the kitchen.…I went to school, and then I got a job, got an apartment, and moved out. Rapid Re-Housing helped me from there. And it lasted for a while. This time, I’m back again, not for the same reasons, but for some of the same behavior.”

For many of our clients, breaking the cycle of homelessness takes years of effort. But while Lisa’s setbacks have brought her once more to the Mary Isaak Center, her determination and self-awareness are helping her make a plan to get back into permanent housing. “I’m doing the same thing I did last time, because it worked,” she says.

She’s volunteering again in the kitchen, this time with the support of Executive Chef Janin Harmon, who is encouraging Lisa to get her culinary degree at Fresh Starts Culinary Academy in Marin, where Janin herself is a graduate. “Here, it’s so nurturing,” Lisa says, “and so different from any other place that I’ve really ever been. Because it’s like, you get a lot of love. You get a lot of tough love, but you also get experience from the other staff that has been here and done that.

“It’s a little embarrassing to come in all broken and talk to somebody that has book knowledge, because they really don’t know where you’ve been at. The staff here lets you know, ‘Hey, look, I’ve been there. And you don’t have to feel afraid to let me know what’s going on with you.’ So it’s easier to get a footing and a foundation, to be able to face the world again, with a different perspective, but a stronger character.


Chuck's Virtual Coffee - September 2022

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,
Chuck

Transitions at COTS

We are going through two major transitions at COTS that will significantly improve how we serve those experiencing homelessness.

The first is our entry into Medi-Cal through the CalAIM program (California Advancing and Innovating Medi-Cal). CalAIM is expanding services available to some of the most vulnerable populations in California, including those experiencing homelessness. The intent is to meet the unsheltered and sheltered where they are – on the streets, in encampments, living in their car, or in a shelter – and then collaborate with health centers to provide services such as enrolling them into Medi-Cal, an appointment with a primary care provider, helping develop a care plan, and hopefully getting them stably housed. California is investing billions of dollars into CalAIM as part of their solution of offering a more equitable, coordinated, and person-centered approach to health care delivery. We are going to serve our clients through a whole new discipline – a medical model.

The second transition is a stronger focus on getting people housed. Thanks to a continued collaboration with our respected partners in Novato, Homeward Bound of Marin, we are moving from a traditional Emergency Shelter to a Housing Focused Shelter. Homeward Bound has an impressive 70% exit rate from their shelters into permanent supportive housing. That means when someone enters our shelter, our expectations are made clear immediately – “you are here to get housing – this is not a free hostel. If that doesn’t work for you, then this is not the place for you.” Then together, we will create a housing plan, and residents will have to meet with their housing case manager weekly. Accountability to their plan is key to staying in the shelter. Getting housing becomes a shared responsibility, but our housing case managers will not work harder than or do all the work for our residents. It’s their responsibility to get housing, and we will help them. This new approach empowers our team, and they are very excited about the possibilities. We are also aligning this new approach with the City of Petaluma’s Strategic Action Plan to End Homelessness and their Pathway to Housing.

We have a responsibility to our community to get people off the streets and into housing. Getting people stably housed is also a big part of their health care plan. And with these two transitions, we believe we can end homelessness.

These transitions won’t be easy. One of my favorite books is by William Bridges called, Managing Transition – Making the Most of Change. Bridges says that change is situational – such as moving offices, restructuring roles, or the retirement of key personnel. Transition, however, is psychological. For any change to succeed, getting people through the transition part is essential. He says that transition is composed of three parts:

  1. Letting go of the old way of doing things. An ending.
  2. Neutral zone – when the old is gone but the new way is not yet fully operational or doesn’t feel comfortable. This is also a creative zone where organizations can develop into what they need to become and renew themselves.
  3. New beginning – coming out of the transition where people develop new identities, experience the new energy, discover a new sense of purpose, and make the change begin to work.

Bridges said that transition starts with an ending and finishes with a beginning. For some on our COTS team, the work they do is personal. A family member, friend, or even they themselves may have experienced homelessness, substance abuse, or mental health challenges. Thus, we cannot impersonally manage the transition and treat it merely as a transaction or change. Sometimes it’s not the change we resist but the ending and having to give up something. We need to be mindful and respectful of the letting go process and the feeling of loss it might create.

Our New CEO

And…we have a third major transition happening at COTS. I am extremely excited about our new CEO at COTS – Chris Cabral. She is wonderful and will help lead COTS to new levels of success – locally and nationally. I was on the search committee and like everyone else, was wowed by her. The committee described her as smart, professional, highly capable with strong leadership skills, dynamic, lots of energy and positivity, humble, vulnerable, and innovative.

The committee was looking for someone that aligned with COTS’s values of integrity, respect, and collaboration. We wanted someone that could build on our wonderful culture, connect with our team members, and listen to and accept them for their strengths. During the interview process when she was asked what her vision was for COTS, she said, “to be the premier partner that people would call upon for help or guidance; and to be the ‘Nike’ of homeless service providers everywhere.” Her references came back glowing. People described her as “in tune with staff, mindful, collaborative, organized and meticulous, follows up, phenomenally intelligent, highly ethical, and does not cut corners.”

Chris starts on January 1, 2023. My last day with COTS will be December 31. I will make myself available to Chris for the month of January. I am also preparing a lengthy CEO Transition Guideline for Chris. WELCOME Chris. We are so excited for you to lead this wonderful organization.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez


Chuck's Virtual Coffee - August 2022

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,
Chuck

Being Intentional About Culture

We often read about the culture of businesses – what good cultures look like, and unfortunately and more often, about toxic cultures. What is culture and why am I writing about it when it appears that culture has nothing to do with solving homelessness?

Culture is the collection of values, customs and norms, behaviors, actions, and expectations that guides how a business operates. It can include a written policy or procedure, be spoken and unspoken, or assumed. It’s not negotiated, and not formed by a press release, annual report, framed on a wall, or a glossy brochure highlighting accomplishments. Culture is about consistent and authentic behaviors. It’s what a team member sees and feels every day – through the good and bad times. Like a computer, culture is an organization’s operating system.

If you want to see the real culture, then observe how a CEO responds to problems or a crisis, how decisions are made, how problems are solved between team members, or what happens when mistakes are made.

One main reason people leave organizations or stay, is culture. Qualities of a great culture include alignment with the mission and vision; everyone rowing in the same direction; consistent appreciation and recognition of team members for a job well done; trust with each other; resilience and how problems are solved; how organizations transform with the times; integrity and doing the right thing; and psychological safety – being in a safe and supportive environment where people can do what they do best, and feel comfortable contributing to the mission.

Companies cannot “luck” their way into building a great culture. It has to be intentional, sustainable, and a core business strategy. Early in my career, I often heard the phrase, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” For a while, I believed that. But as I got more experience in business, leading people, and helping transform organizations to health, I realized that statement was incorrect. Strategy and culture should never be bifurcated or operate in silos. Instead, creating a healthy culture should always be a main focus and part of one’s strategy. Building a healthy culture must be intentional and “built by design.”

So why am I sharing all this. Because last month, COTS received two pieces of great news. We were 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. In both cases, our team completed the anonymous surveys. We have no way of knowing who participated in the survey or what a specific team member said. Seventy percent of the COTS team participated in both surveys. The NBBJ awards ceremony will be on September 14 at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

And for the July 2022 Employee Engagement Survey, we had a ninety five percent Satisfaction Rating. Some of the 17 questions in the survey were: I know what is expected of me in my position; I have the materials and information I need to perform my job; I have the opportunity to do what I do best almost every day; my supervisor is respectful and encouraging; my opinions are heard and addressed; my co-workers are committed to performing quality work; I would recommend working at COTS; I believe COTS lives it values of Integrity, Respect, Collaboration, Celebration, and Outcomes, and more.

So what does this have to do with addressing homelessness? Lots! Our team is responsible to help our clients find housing; to address the issues that led to their homelessness; to be their advocate and believe in them when no one else will; help them take the next steps in their addiction or medical and mental health issues; and to help them live their best lives. Our work is difficult, not very glamorous, and has a high burn out rate. It takes a special person to do this work. So having a strong, safe, professional, and fun culture filled with amazing and talented people makes it easier to attract and retain talent. It also decreases turnover, though not all turnover is bad. More people are fully engaged. They trust each other and jump in when help is needed. It increases performance and productivity. It results in a strong brand identity – people want to work for you because of your culture. 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. While that is good, perhaps just as important are metrics like quality of leadership, culture, and staff satisfaction. Afterall, it’s the people and culture that ultimately drive the numbers and results.

I remember during one interview, the candidate asked our team, “so what’s the vibe like at COTS?” Well…the vibe is really cool, healthy, fun, and only getting better. At COTS, we just really like each other.

CEO Search

COTS has selected a new CEO and we are extremely excited. We found the perfect candidate to lead COTS for the next bunches (I think that’s a word) of years. We will make the official announcement in mid to late September and share more exciting information about this candidate.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez


Chuck's Virtual Coffee - July 2022

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,
Chuck

Health Care and Homelessness

Many articles on homelessness stress the need for more housing to solve homelessness. Those articles also talk about the complexity of homelessness. Yes, homelessness is complex and housing is one answer. But any mention of housing also needs to include the critical role of and co-solution to solving homelessness – health care. Why?

Annual Point in Time Counts show similar co-occurring conditions that the sheltered and unsheltered experience: 23% have a physical disability; 29% have PTSD; 23% have chronic health issues; 10% have a traumatic brain injury; 36% suffer from drug and alcohol use; and 40% from psychiatric or emotional conditions. Talk with our COTS team and they will tell you that 99% suffer from serious mental, substance abuse, and medical conditions. And we haven’t even talked about the need to address other social determinants of health and wellness, some of which are the conditions that people are born into, grow, live, and work in as well as the interrelated social and economic systems that shape their lives. Those include income, education, literacy skills, access to nutritious foods, transportation, neighborhoods lived in, racism, discrimination, and violence. Solving homelessness is complex and it’s not as simple as building more housing.

So what’s my point. Help is on the way…in a big, bold, and innovative way. It’s called CalAIM – California Advancing and Innovating Medi-Cal. And COTS is doing this. California and Medi-Cal realized the vital role that health systems can play in addressing homelessness. They also realized that there is a health gap. Treating those experiencing homelessness in the emergency room and then releasing them back into homelessness provides no opportunity for follow up care. And making a follow up appointment on a certain day and time is well…simply not going to happen. Health care is so much more than what happens in an exam room; health and homeless systems impact each other. Medi-Cal also realized that to be effective and meet the unique needs of this complex population, they needed to meet “the homeless where they are.” Thus, the homeless, health, and housing systems must work together to deliver better health and housing outcomes over time.

CalAIM will couple traditional medical care with non-medical services such as:

  • Help with developing a housing plan or with housing search.
  • Assist with housing documentation needed for leasing a rental unit.
  • Landlord education and tenant advocacy.
    Security deposits, first and last month’s rent.
  • Case management for help with behaviors that may jeopardize housing or help with late rent, lease violations.
  • Recuperative Care for homeless patients discharged from the hospital that are not sick enough to be in the hospital but too sick to be on the streets; and much more.

These and more services are grouped into two categories of services – Community Supports and Enhanced Care Management. And Community Based Organizations (CBO) such as COTS will get reimbursement for delivery of these services.

Of course this will not be easy. Homeless services and health care each have a different language, acronyms, and culture. We need to understand and educate each other on our systems and then build a common language. That means massive collaboration, education, and communications so that no one falls through the cracks.

COTS received a grant from CalAIM and Partnership Health Plan of California to train and hire new staff, and put the infrastructure (policies, procedures, technology requirements) in place between now and December 31. Our goal then is to “Go Live” with CalAIM and provide and bill for services starting January 1, 2023. It will take COTS and others doing this at least two years before we feel comfortable with a new language and a new way of doing business. We are building the proverbial plan as we fly, and we know that we need to be patient, as none of us have all the answers.

CalAIM is a win for Medi-Cal to better serve its members/enrollees more efficiently and effectively; 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. This is also a win for public health, social justice, and equity.

Yes, health, housing, and homelessness are intertwined. Housing is health care and affordable housing is an important social justice component. Health care services are more effective when patients are stably housed. And maintaining housing is more likely if proper health care services are delivered. And stable housing is a key social determinant of health. We just need to address all three together.

CEO Search

The CEO Search Committee has made much progress in the last month. Robert Half Executive Search (RHES) has identified several very good candidates, and we have been in an active interview process. The Committee is careful, thorough, intentional, and respectful during this process. This is the best, most professional search process I have ever participated in. They are taking their job seriously and will settle only on the best candidate for COTS and our community. I am impressed and proud to be a part of this process.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez


Chuck's Virtual Coffee - June 2022

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,
Chuck

Treatment and Accountability – The Solution to Homelessness

The Housing First (HF) philosophy has existed since the early 1990s. Its core principles include moving people directly from the streets into permanent supportive housing and then addressing the issues that led to their homelessness, and choice or self-determination meaning that treatment or support for their substance abuse/addiction, mental health, lifestyle choices, or other issues that led to their homelessness are optional. In other words, requiring that the homeless work toward sobriety, getting mental health counseling, job training, or life skills as a means of accessing housing or shelter are a “barrier” and prohibited. Actions have consequences, and under HF, accountability and assistance requirements became a barrier.

HF promised to reduce the use of other public systems (hospitals, law enforcement) and save taxpayer dollars. The federal government adopted HF, and made it mandatory for homeless service providers that receive federal money. California adopted HF in 2016.

Since its adoption, billions have been spent on homelessness and the problem has only worsened. Unfortunately, more investment in housing did not correlate to a decrease in homelessness. There are more homeless on the streets, and encampments and street disorder have multiplied. Homelessness is a top concern of voters in California. The pandemic, the economy, inflation, increased cost of living, lack of affordable housing, and systemic racism and inequities have exacerbated the situation. In California, the homeless population in 2016 was 118,142. In 2020, it was 161,548 or a 37% increase from 2016. So what went wrong?

Despite the belief from Housing First that homelessness is a housing problem, it is not. Homelessness is a “human problem.” The 2020 Point in Time Count in Sonoma County showed that 36% of the homeless suffer from drug or alcohol abuse; 40% from a psychiatric or emotional condition; 23% from chronic health problems, and 39% have a history of domestic violence. A study by UCLA in 2019 showed even higher numbers – 75% of the unsheltered have substance abuse disorders; 78% have mental health disorders; and 84% have physical health conditions. Adding to this, many have criminal histories, a lack of education, or work experience. These are not people who simply lack housing. These are people suffering from “profound human pathologies” that must be addressed.

Moreover, the primary metric of success for HF was the number of people housed and that stayed housed even if they fell deeper into addiction, depression, or mental health crises. Prioritizing a physical space over the safety and well-being of those inside the home misses the connection between respect, dignity, and compassion for human life and responsibility.

To successfully address and decrease homelessness, we must first treat the symptoms and causes that led to homelessness instead of first putting them in a house. We CANNOT make it optional. Doing so enables the homeless into dependency. It also constricts the taxpayers into more funding for those who could work and provide for themselves with the proper case management, tools, and supportive services. Resources are limited and we cannot continue to invest billions without results.

The most effective pathway to self-sufficiency, long term housing and stabilization, and a dignified life, is a “Treatment First” approach, not a Housing First Approach. We must require treatment. And we must require accountability as part of their change management process. Accountability fosters ownership and without that, the pathway to a different life cannot be sustained. We must go back to what worked before, at COTS and many other places five to ten years ago – a housing readiness approach. That is, a gradual process of addressing the issues that led to one’s homelessness before getting housing.

Please know that I write the above with all the love and respect for those experiencing homelessness. I and my colleagues desperately want to do the right thing. We see the results of HF every day and it’s demoralizing and frustrating. And that causes compassion fatigue and burnout. As caring human beings, and as a homeless system of care, we can do much better. We appeal to our state and federal policy makers to rethink Housing First, which has failed to reduce homelessness and human suffering. They must adopt a Treatment First program that provides the most effective pathway to a dignified and self-sustaining life. Policy makers should also reward homeless services providers on results – stabilizing and keeping people in their homes. It worked before and it will work again. Stop messing with a good thing.

CEO Search

The CEO Search Committee is making progress. We meet weekly with Robert Half Executive Search (RHES) to discuss potential candidates, their background, and experiences. They are still in the process of identifying candidates and then bringing them to the committee for discussion. Some are local but most are out of County or State. For each serious candidate, RHES presents a multi-page summary of each candidate based on their vetting process, plus the candidates resume. Those documents are then the basis for the committee’s discussion. It is a very efficient process. It will be a while before actual interviews begin.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez


Chuck's Virtual Coffee - May 2022

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,
Chuck

Permanent Supportive Housing

Recently, there have been articles in the newspaper about Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) projects in Sonoma County. Some have been hopeful and were presented as just one of the solutions to homelessness, while others revealed some challenges. The Studios at Montero (Montero), located in Petaluma, is a 60-unit PSH project between the City of Petaluma (City), Burbank Housing (Burbank), and COTS. As a team that works well together, we are very excited about this project for several reasons:

Working from our Strengths – We each have different strengths and expertise necessary for the long-term success of Montero. The City is one of the underwriters and lead sponsor of the project and has made Montero an important element in its Vision and Strategic Plan to end homelessness in Petaluma. Burbank is a nonprofit affordable housing developer with extensive development and property management experience and will be the owner/operator of Montero. And COTS has decades of experience working with those experiencing homeless. We each have different missions that also hold each other accountable and act as a check and balance – Burbank to enforce lease provisions and manage and care for its real estate asset; COTS to provide intense case management services and advocacy for the residents; and both reporting to the City, City Council, and community of our progress and challenges.

Sensible budget process – Besides having a multi-million dollar budget for renovations (capital budget), there is also an annual operating budget that includes specific line items for repair and maintenance, security, pest control, case management, and other expenses. The budget also includes contingencies for unexpected expenses as always happens in construction/renovations, and reserves for future capital improvements like roofs or other major repairs. We also made sure that security costs were realistic and extensive to ensure a safe and stable environment for staff and residents of Montero to thrive. This includes fencing for controlled access to the property to keep out uninvited guests.

Rigorous regulatory requirements – Because Montero is government funded, the conversion of this former motel to PSH will undergo a strict municipal permitting process. There are code requirements for fire safety (sprinklers to be installed); ventilation that requires fresh air intake with a separate exhaust that will prevent mold and dampness issues; PG&E metering requirements; requirements under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) to ensure minimal negative impact to the environment; inspections during the renovation process, and more. There will be no tolerance for cutting of any corners. In short, The Studios at Montero will have strong oversight and monitoring by three different agencies with checks and balances and accountabilities to ensure its success.

My colleague homeless service providers in Sonoma County are consummate professionals, are very competent, and have huge hearts. An admirable blend of head and heart. They move forward, trailblaze, and innovate, always with the intent of doing good. It’s our purpose, our passion, our goal, and the risk we are willing to take to better serve those experiencing homelessness. Most of the time we succeed. Sometimes, however, we don’t accomplish what we intended. It’s not for a lack of trying and we shouldn’t stop. And that works for me.

We’re just about at shelter capacity!

For the past month or so, we’ve consistently filled about 94% of our shelter beds on any given night. That means of the 80 beds on the first floor (main shelter area), 75 of the beds are filled. This is amazing given that the weather is warming up and many usually prefer to stay outside. It’s even more amazing as that pesky COVID is alive and ever lurking, and we still require masking and practice safety and health precautions. That on top of all the talk of people not wanting to be in a congregate type setting.

All the kudos and gratitude go to our shelter, kitchen, and facilities team – Chris, Christina, Nichole, Jesse, Chelsea, Dario, Eileen, Fionn, Randy, Stacie, shelter services Director Robin Phoenix, Chef Janin, Antoine, Jack, Dana, Robert, Sean, Facilities Director John McEntee, and our fabulous nurse Annie Nicol. This shelter team is full of fearless leaders that are making this happen.

CEO Search

I promised to keep you updated on our search for the next CEO to lead COTS. Well…we’ve formed a CEO Search Committee comprised of six board members and two staff (myself and Chief Personnel Officer Cat Higgins). We sought five bids from search organizations and two responded. The Committee recommended to the full Board of Directors and the Board approved Robert Half Executive Search (RH) to lead the search. We are currently finalizing the CEO Position Description before RH conducts their national search. I promise to keep you updated with every Virtual Coffee.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez


Chuck's Virtual Coffee - April 2022

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,
Chuck

Village Services Manager Stacie Questoni visiting with a client

Our Pathway to Housing

We now have nine residents in People’s Village (PV). The remaining sixteen units are assembled, and we hope to have all twenty-five units filled by the end of April or early May. So what has worked so far…our successes, and what have been our challenges?

Our residents appreciate having a place to call their own. A place where they feel safe, can lock their door for privacy, get a full night’s sleep, and not worry that someone will steal their belongings, beat them up, or make them move. Instead of worrying where their next meal will come from, where they can shower, use the bathroom, or get access to clean water, all of that is now provided for them. That sense of safety and security allows them to leave PV and go about their chores or responsibilities during the day – their job or their medical appointments. They are now meeting with their case manager to assess their strengths, their needs, address any legal, medical, or mental health support needed, begin to repair their credit and finances, and their housing history and preferences. They know that they can return at the end of the day to a home just as safe and with everything in it, as how they left it in the morning. Being safe and secure is giving them confidence and a sense of independence, something they may not have had before.

And because People’s Village is smaller and more intimate than our shelter or a typical congregate living situation, they feel a sense of belonging and community with the other residents and with our staff, primarily Stacie Questoni, our People’s Village Program Manager, Randy Clay, our Lead Outreach Specialist, and Robin Phoenix, our Director of Shelter Services.

We are also happy to share that there have been no thefts or lost items at People’s Village. So far, so good.

But we’ve also had some challenges. Change is difficult for many of us, especially our residents. They’ve gone from an encampment at Steamer Landing to a Temporary Placement Center for four months, and now to People’s Village. Regardless of how much notice we gave them about the move to PV, and how many times we talked about the move, many just struggled with the change. It’s unsettling, new, different, not familiar, traumatizing, frightening. Some changed their mind and refused to go. Some did not show up at their scheduled move date and time.

Some continue to hoard to the point where their unit is filled with items and becomes a safety and fire risk. Hoarding is common with those experiencing homelessness. When a person has lost everything or everyone close to them, they now want to hold on to everything as a reminder of the past or a hope for their future life – an empty bottle, broken toy, broom, old clothing. The units at PV have limited space, so we are considering PODS as a way to store additional items for the residents.

Some are adjusting to the rules of living at PV. Yes, to maintain some order and discipline, we need rules. Some residents thought that living independently did not mean rules, like mandatory inspections or curfew.

And so all of this change to a new environment, new behavior and skills learned, and expectations takes time and lots of patience, forgiveness, and flexibility. People’s Village is one of our Pathways to Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). Thanks to a wonderful partnership with the City of Petaluma and Burbank Housing, many of these residents will hopefully transition to The Studios at Montero (Governor Newsom’s Project Homekey Program). The skills learned at PV will help make for a smoother transition to the Studios.

That said, let’s be understanding and mindful that going from the streets, a shelter, or even People’s Village to PSH will NOT be easy. After years of living on the streets – under your own rules and independence to living under someone else’s rules or terms – is difficult. They now have to pay whatever bills on time, clean, shop for groceries, and take their keys when they leave (they have no keys on the streets). Leaving the streets or a shelter means abandoning the past and imagining a future, a challenge if one is used to living hour by hour. There is also loneliness as your family and friends may still be on the streets or in the shelter. That guilt may trigger old behaviors. In a way, our residents need to be reconditioned from being on constant alert for police, violence, or constant search for food. All of that can be more challenging than living on the streets.

And with a team like Stacie, Randy, Robin, and many more of our COTS team, we always have hope. Like Robin says, “we just never give up on our clients…never.”

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez