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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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

Chuck's Virtual Coffee - January 2022

Happy New Year! 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,

My Focus for the Next 15 Months…

You may have seen the article last week in the Argus Courier announcing my retirement in April 2023. Here is a link to the official media release: By then, I will be 70 and it’s time for the next generation of leaders to lead this wonderful organization. Some have told me that 70 is the new 50. Perhaps. But it’s good for new leadership to come in with fresh ideas and a passion to selflessly serve our COTS team and those experiencing homelessness.

Why the long lead time? Our board of directors want to take every step necessary to ensure the right CEO continues to lead COTS and a national search can often take six months. And who knows how COVID will impact this process. The board is hiring an executive search firm and they will meet with different stakeholder groups – staff, community leaders, partner agencies, volunteers, and our cherished donors, to get their voice on what they feel are important skills and qualities in the next CEO. In the spirit of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB), it is essential that stakeholders are included in the process, have a space for their important voice, be communicated with about progress, and that all candidates have an equal and fair chance. The board also wants some overlap, with the new CEO and me, to help ensure a smooth transition. And all of that takes time.

So, my focus for the next 15 months will be to continue to address the ever-growing concerns of homelessness. It seems the more Sonoma County tries, the challenges still persists. Thankfully, we have some solutions around the corner, like our tiny homes project called People’s Village. We are also working on other housing solutions that will make a difference.

COTS was founded in 1988 by Mary Isaak, Laure Reichek, and a team of dedicated and compassionate volunteers who had concerns for children and adults who were sleeping outdoors in culverts, dumpsters, and other unsafe and unsuitable conditions. COTS has come a long way, and we still have much work to do. The next CEO will continue the long tradition of vision, excellence, collaboration, and innovative services provided by Mary, Laure, and all those who have helped since then. The future of COTS is very bright.

Tiny Homes and Managing Our Expectations

Have you ever remodeled your kitchen, bathroom, or even an entire house? Did everything go as planned and on schedule? Did all the appliances, cabinets, bathroom fixtures, various materials, and even the sub-contractors arrive as planned? Probably not. Frustrating yes, but that is the nature of remodeling and construction. Stuff happens no matter how well-intentioned and thought out a plan is. And then add COVID and the Great Resignation to that mix. Welcome to our tiny home project known as People’s Village.

Our People’s Village Team – City of Petaluma, COTS, various contractors, and QuickHaven are all doing their very best. Four tiny home units have been delivered (unassembled) and six more will be delivered next week. But we have to be patient as there are site improvements that must be done before we can assemble the units. We are going to do this the right way, even if that means taking more time. That patience will make operating the units and serving our guests more effective and efficient. We will get there. We just need to manage our expectations.

Thank you, John McEntee

COTS Director of Facilities John McEntee is helping to lead the efforts to get People’s Village up and running. Every major project needs a project leader who is steady, calm, and can handle the many problems and delays that seem to plague construction projects and do it all with seemingly ease and confidence. John McEntee is that person for COTS. While he can get frustrated because he wants to see this project up and running so we can get people off the streets, he’s a professional, he understands his craft very well, and he knows how to handle problems with staffing, delays, miscommunication, contractors, scheduling, and so much more. Thank you so much John for being our leader on this project. We all appreciate and are grateful for you.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez

Chuck's Virtual Coffee - December 2021

Happy Holidays! 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,

Being Intentional About Culture…

As we close 2021 and reflect on another year of COVID, I wanted to share with you my biggest learning of the year – and that is the importance of being intentional about creating a healthy culture at COTS. Our news is filled with stories about “toxic cultures” in business, sports teams, and other types of organizations. The reasons are many, but they typically start with the CEO, President, founder of the company, or a department head, usually someone with power and influence. Sadly, this seems to be the norm instead of the exception.

So, what is culture and why is it so important, especially in the current “great resignation” environment? And what can we do, as non-profit leaders, to prevent this from happening in our organization?

As business leader Peter Ashworth said, culture is a company’s only “unique identifier.” At COTS, we provide homeless services such as shelter, case management, and street outreach. We also have administrative services like accounting, grant writing, and fundraising. But other homeless organizations have the same thing. What we do is not unique. It can easily be replicated. Lots of companies make cars or electronic items, or provide services like legal, real estate, or financial assistance. Even innovation can be replicated. But the only unique identifier of a company that cannot be replicated is its culture. A vibrant, healthy, and positive culture differentiates a company from its competitors.

Culture is about your shared values, beliefs, and norms. It includes things like your policies, procedures, expectations, code of conduct, opportunities to advance, even disciplinary actions. It’s formed in part by how the leaders communicate and interact with employees; what they communicate and emphasize; their vision for the future; how the organization is managed – its systems, structure, hierarchy, controls, goals; and workplace practices like recruiting and retaining staff, compensation and benefits, rewards and recognition, training, and advancing and promotions. Culture is also formed by the people you hire – their personalities, diverse skills and experience, and behaviors; and even the office layout – artifacts, color of the walls, furniture. And of course, the clarity of the mission, vision, and values play a large role in forming a culture.

Healthy cultures have transparent communication; have trust, cooperation, and collaboration; minimal internal politics; less complexity that can lead to faster execution; a strong sense of identification; and work toward a common goal. Weak cultures have the opposite and hire employees who don’t fit; don’t create and communicate a clear and inspiring mission, vision, and values; have lackluster work environments; and tolerate management styles that threaten employee engagement and retention.

So why am I sharing all this? Because we’re facing the biggest talent crisis in years. People are no longer competing for jobs. Instead, companies are now competing for people. For the longest time, people felt disconnected from their work, faced burnout, low morale, were underpaid and under-appreciated. COVID caused people to rethink their passions, and many are leaving their jobs and making career changes.

Some organizations let their culture form organically and without defining what they want it to be. And that’s a mistake. Culture is a strategy and if a company wants a competitive edge, high morale, employee satisfaction and engagement, a safe environment where team members feel valued and respected, and have a voice, then a company needs to be intentional about building a healthy culture. The best prevention during the “great resignation,” is to create a healthy culture.

I continue to learn every day what it takes to humbly lead this great organization. And I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes. The best people want to work for and with the best organization. And while we have made much progress, we still have work to do. Building a healthy culture is never ending. Because we have the best people at COTS, I want to make sure we create the best culture and environment for them – our compassionate and dedicated staff, our volunteers, our board of directors, our donors and investors, and our fabulous community.

At COTS, our culture is our personality. And if all of the norms, behaviors, and policies, etc. listed above are the structure of COTS, then the soul of COTS is our culture. Thank you for making that a reality.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez

Volunteer Profile: Katie Haas


When Katie Haas was growing up in San Francisco, kids used to knock on the door and ask if her Dad could come out to play. It might have hurt Katie’s feelings back then, but now she’s grateful for the love of kids and play that her Dad gave her.

She’s shared that love with COTS for over ten years in lots of different ways.

Right now, we think she’s in her perfect role. Katie’s a wonderful artist herself, who works in acrylics and collage, so we’re thrilled to have her as part of the art team at the Kids First Family Center. Once a week, she joins a coordinator from our nonprofit partner Drawbridge to help kids create paintings, sculptures, calendars, light catchers—you name it.

“I’ve loved art since I was little,” Katie says. “It’s been of core importance in my life. I think in our culture we don’t value it as much as we should. I’m glad I can show children that art is something to value and that you can grow from art.”

Katie says she grows from the art sessions, too, and singles out Drawbridge Coordinator Susie Butler as an inspiration. “She knows how to connect with a huge open heart,” Katie says. “I learn from her. She knows the right things to say to make them [the kids] feel self-confident. She’ll compliment them in a really honest way. She just makes them feel seen and loved.”

When not at COTS and not absorbed in her own art-making, Katie has plenty to do, much of with her family. She cares for her aging mom, volunteers with Hospice, helps paint the scenery at Cinnabar Theater, sings in a choir, and, together her husband Al (also a COTS volunteer) produces a small folk concert series in her living room.

Right now, Katie is creating a series of paintings inspired by her father’s childhood class pictures. “They’re from the thirties. I love how in those days you were just who you were in front of the camera. You didn’t smile because you were being photographed like people do today. You smiled because you felt like it. These kids, their expressions, you feel like you could almost read their minds. I feel really connected with them.” Visit to feel that connection yourself.

Katie encourages people to give volunteering a try. “Being homeless seems really horrible. I think I just recognize that suffering people need other people. We all like to feel like we’re helping out.”

Thank you, Katie!

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Volunteer Profile: Tracey Rose


Tracey Rose does a lot of planning and preparation for her art sessions at Kid First Family Shelter.

We have kids of all ages and interests staying with us, and Tracey creates a variety of projects to make their minds jump and their fingers itch. Sometimes, she’ll have a happy crowd in her workshops: joyful, focused kids drawing, pasting and painting.

But the families that stay at the shelter often have challenges around transportation or scheduling. And sometimes a kid will be there, but he’ll want to play a video game—not draw. So, sometimes Tracey will work with a smaller, quieter group.

The last time she came, there was only Angelina, a curly-haired 5-year-old girl who wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her afternoon.

“I kind of grabbed her,” Tracey says. “’I have lots of fun things’ I told her. ‘Do you want to do art?’” Like a true professional, Tracey gave Angelina a great time. She had three projects with her that day and Angelina chose to make a necklace. Tracey helped her design her pattern, string the beads and secure it around her neck. “She was showing it off. She loved it,” Tracey says.

“But I was feeling disappointed. When you’re planning, you always have an idea of how things are going to go. And this wasn’t it. I wanted more kids.”

Then Angelina asked: “Why do you come here?”

“It was great that she asked me that,” Tracey says. “I thought about it. She made me think about it. And I told her it’s because I love creating art and I love sharing with people. Her smile after that was so big.”

Then Angelina wanted to do more. They made a bracelet for her mom to match the necklace Angelina had made for herself. Her Dad teased and asked where his present was. Tracey and the little girl quickly made him a Valentine’s rock.

“My face hurt I was smiling so hard,” Tracey says. “To be able to give a child something to hang onto, something to create, the opportunity to say, ‘Look what I did and I’m giving it to you,’ that’s wonderful. It lifted her. It made her laugh. What’s better than that?”

We are grateful that Tracey gifts us with her talent, her joy and her flexibility. We are grateful for the lift she provides the kids at COTS—sometimes for many of them, and sometimes for just one precious girl.

COTS kids are not the only ones to benefit from Tracey’s generosity. You can find her reading stories in the children’s area at Copperfield’s once a month. She’s the one who brings in her own stick puppets and her felt board and characters. She’s also a volunteer for Verity, providing outreach education for grade school kids on the difficult topics of staying safe and being body aware. And she volunteers with Marin’s Bread and Roses, shepherding great bands to convalescent hospitals, schools, community centers and shelters.

She and her husband Jeremy are both teachers, but both have had long and varied careers, and Tracey has never been far from a paint brush, sewing machine or paper bead jewelry. They met at Cinnabar Theater in the 1970s. Tracey was starring in “Spoon River Anthology” and her soon-to-be-husband Jeremy was designing and running the lights. By the time the next production was in rehearsal, they’d married. Living in Marin, they raised two talented and “fierce” daughters. They moved back to Petaluma 14 years ago and celebrate their 43rd anniversary this year.

Thank you, Tracey!

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