Help During the Holidays

Holiday Free Store

This year, we have decided to continue our tradition of the Holiday Free Store, in partnership with the Plaza North Shopping Center, open exclusively to COTS clients.

In previous years, community members have generously adopted individual families -- both in our shelters and housing. With our community need growing even more expansive and geographically diverse, we knew we needed to make the process as simple as possible - both for our families, and for our staff, who are working extra hard to find housing for our clients. The Free Store will help facilitate this process and help make the holidays as joyous as possible.

COTS Holiday Free Store

The Plaza North Shopping Center (near Starbucks)
223 N. McDowell Boulevard, Petaluma

Open for shopping to COTS clients   

TO DONATE: Bring NEW, unwrapped gifts to our store from 12/2 - 12/19:

Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays 10am-3pm

Gift ideas and flyer

TO SHOP: Please call (707) 765-6530 x 103 for information about shopping days.

Used items: If you are interested in donating used items, please contact your favorite local thrift store. Many stores offer their items to our clients for free or reduced prices.

Thank you for your support.  Please spread the word!

Collect food for COTS with REFB

COTS is collaborating with the Redwood Empire Food Bank this year to collect food for our families in shelter and housing. The need for food in our community is vast and, especially now, extends beyond the COTS community. We encourage anyone wishing to support our community with food to visit Redwood Empire Food Bank's donation page for more information.

Randy meets with a woman downtown in Petaluma.

Top 10 Moments of 2016

10. COTS graduate wows his landlord

Brad found a landlord willing to accept his Section 8 voucher, but the property did not pass inspection, frustrating the landlord and delaying Brad’s ability to exit homelessness. Brad was determined and persevered – he went above and beyond to help the elderly landlord complete the repairs.


The property has been approved, the landlord is thrilled with his new tenant, and Brad is so happy to have a place to call home.


9. Our kids go to summer camp

Here’s a note we received from one of our teens:


8. The COTS Children’s Program expands to serve 200 kids

We now offer activities in Rohnert Park and Petaluma, at three different sites.


 Look what the kids made!


7. Landlords help our clients weather the affordable housing crisis

Finding affordable units can be tough. But several generous landlords have reduced the cost of their rental units to fit within what our clients can afford.


6. Collaboration makes a difference in Healdsburg

In our first year in collaboration with North Sonoma County’s Family Transitional Housing program in Healdsburg, 100% of families (8 of 8) who left the program successfully moved into a home of their own.



5. Work: Ready Apparel outfits 200 program participants



Heavy-duty work boots pictured in the shop. Work: Ready Apparel is 100% volunteer run.


4. We catch up with Charmaine in her new home


3. Foster kittens bring joy and healing to the Mary Isaak Center

Our CFO began fostering kittens at the Mary Isaak Center. One of the residents, Joanie, often asked us about the kittens and was excited when she found out that one of the kittens was also named Joanie.


Benefits Advocate, Barbara, pictured with Joanie.

Recently, our CFO went to a local restaurant to pick up a quick lunch.  She says, “The cashier greeted me by name, and it was Joanie!  I asked her how she was doing and she shared that she had been working there for 4 months and was now in permanent housing.”


2. Mary walks through the front door

Mary lost her job over the summer, became depressed, and lost her housing. Her friend brought her to the Mary Isaak Center, but Mary’s anxiety was so extreme that she was afraid to walk through the door.

Her mental health worsened while living on the street, and she spent time in psychiatric units before deciding that living isolated on the streets was making her situation worse.


This time, she decided to just walk through our doors.

She says staff and clients all welcomed her in and helped her to feel safe and at home. “This is the first time in 20 years that I can remember feeling happy,” she said.

Mary was recently hired part time at a local church doing janitorial work and is looking for a home with roommates. She realized that a community makes all the difference.


1. Sober Circle makes a BIG impact

Sober Circle encourages 30 street homeless to engage with substance abuse treatment and housing programs. Sober Circle is a collaboration between the Petaluma Health Care District, St. Joseph Health, Kaiser Permanente, Petaluma Health Center, the Petaluma Police Department, Partnership Health Plan, and Catholic Charities.

Best of all, we will be adding a second case manager in 2017, meaning even more people will have a chance to transform their life. 



Randy Clay, pictured above on the right, walks the streets to connect with homeless community members needing our support. When they are ready, he can quickly connect them with services.

Thank you for your support this year. Here's to 2017!


The holiday season can be a time of joy and sorrow for many of us, including our COTS residents. That's the case for our client Blanca, who is facing her first winter without her older sister who rescued her from an unsafe home when Blanca was only 13.

"Two things are keeping me going right now," says Blanca. "The support I found at COTS and the foundation my sister left me. She was everything to me--mother, best friend and co-parent to my daughter."

Blanca's small family came to COTS after her sister was injured in an accident and was no longer able to work. At COTS, Blanca was able to take advantage of our skills-building classes and the wisdom of a compassionate and motivating case management team. She increased her income, stocked her savings and began to plan for their future. She loved and was good at taking care of her sister, so she started taking prerequisites to a nursing degree, envisioning a career in a local hospital.

But her beloved sister was hospitalized with pneumonia earlier this year and died. Blanca's plans had to change.

At COTS, we face hard truths with compassion.

Blanca's case manager referred her to a therapist, but she also spent many afternoons with Blanca, listening to her thoughts and memories and helping her plan for her future. She decided to get in touch with extended family in Arizona. To her delight, they were eager to help. She and her daughter will be moving to Arizona in the New Year.

I thank you for your past support and compassion, and I encourage you to donate to COTS today so that we can serve hundreds more people like Blanca--people whose struggles can be eased and whose lives can be changed with support and connection.


"There's a cul de sac, with a basketball court. The kids can rollerblade in the neighborhood. We're near a park. They love it and they love their schools."

Most of our clients have led difficult lives, and Charmaine is no exception.

Growing up in Sonoma County, she often felt like a nuisance to her parents and
step-parents. As a teenager, she stopped going to school – partly hoping that
someone would notice her unhappiness and intervene – and partly because she’d
already missed so much and felt like she’d never catch up. Her parents and
neighbors kicked her out of their homes, and she found herself homeless at age 16.

She drifted from job to job, from couch to couch. After a few years, Charmaine
realized that what she’d always thought of as “partying” had become a serious
problem. By this time, she had a 3-year-old daughter and was newly pregnant
with her second child. “I just woke up then. I had a flash,” she says. “I realized I
had to give them something different from what I’d had.”

That’s when Charmaine started accepting help, first through a recovery program,
and then through COTS. Can you give, so that when people ask for help and
healing, we can provide it?

“She worked harder than any other client I’ve worked with,” says Charmaine’s
case manager at COTS. “She listens to every suggestion and has an open heart.
She could make a lot of excuses about her past, but she never does.”
Charmaine saved her money, paid off an old debt and completed our tenant
education class, Rent Right, where she worked with a volunteer who cheered
her on in her housing search. Charmaine’s persistence paid off when she found
a landlord willing to rent her two bedrooms in the landlord’s private residence.

Now that her kids are established in a stable home, Charmaine has new plans.
“I really want to complete my GED and find a better job,” she says. “I spent half
my life homeless. The next half belongs to me and my girls.”

Sober Circle breaks the cycle

Randy Clay is Lead Outreach Specialist for the Petaluma Sober Circle, a new collaboration designed to encourage street homeless to enter substance abuse treatment and our shelter program, and find housing.

How is your partnership with the police department going?

The exchange of information is marvelous. The police have experience with a lot of the folks who are camping or hanging out downtown, so we can collaborate and we encourage people toward treatment and shelter. This is a very proactive police department.

How is the business community helping?

Obviously, they’re really affected by street homelessness. There’s a business cost to it -- and also an emotional cost of seeing people down on their luck and suffering.


The word about the program is getting out. We’ve been speaking to groups and I’ve been introducing myself to business owners. I’m getting more and more calls. Sometimes a store manager will have a relation- ship with the person they’re calling about and will be able to introduce me. That connection helps to establish trust and increases the possibility that they’ll be receptive. We encourage people to call me directly when they have a concern.

How do you manage your emotions when you see people in such extreme circumstances?

No one wants pity. I want people to know that I see their dignity. That’s the groundwork that will get people to trust you and start thinking about making a change. It can take a while, but I’m seeing less and less resistance. When I first started visiting people in their camps, a lot of times I’d get told to leave. But now, they’re happy to see me.


A lot of these people in addition to dealing with drug or alcohol use, are battling some severe mental illnesses. The best approach always is to be direct, help them with their immediate needs, and let them know I’m concerned for their safety and health.

Can you tell us about a success?

I’m very optimistic about a guy I’ve been working with recently. He’s been around a long time. We had a few conversations and I let him know we were here to help him when he was ready. He reached his tipping point, and I took him to treatment. Thirty days later, I picked him up and brought him to the shelter. He’s been a great resident. He works hard, does his chores, and goes to meetings.


Every success is different. At first, maybe someone will just take a pair of socks and some wet wipes. Maybe I’ll get them lunch. Tomorrow they might ask me to help them get treatment. When that happens, I act right away. We get in the car and we go. We have residential rehab beds dedicated for them, so there’s never any waiting. When someone is ready to change, we’re ready.

If you see someone who needs help, call Randy directly: 707.322.2732.

Working together, we can do more. Petaluma Sober Circle is a collaborative project of COTS, the Petaluma Police and Fire Departments, the Petaluma Health Care District, the Petaluma Health Center, Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, Sonoma County DHS, St. Joseph Health and Kaiser Permanente. 

Talking with young people

We've begun an initiative to talk with young people about homelessness. We kicked off this effort recently, when Warren Theuret, our Operations Manager, spoke to several freshman classes at Casa Grande High School. (Warren lived on the streets for 13 years before coming to COTS and pulling his life back together.)

Following are some of the anonymous questions and comments the students wrote after hearing Warren’s story. The young people showed a lot of sensitivity to this important issue.

Some of their questions:

“Were you ever scared when you were homeless?”

“How did it feel to be homeless? Like, did people give you any spare change, or give you dirty looks?”

“Did your family help you out at all?”

“What do you think is causing the numbers of homeless to jump so rapidly?”

“What was it like living under a bridge?”

“Why did it take 13 years for your epiphany?”

“Did it hurt when you lost your things?”

Some of their comments:

“I think it’s really nice of you to share your story. It must have been tough to remember your old days of being homeless.”

“I have a friend who has an older brother who is homeless. I never really thought about it, but now I have opened my eyes to the homeless.”

“It’s amazing how positive you are about everything that has happened to you in your life. You are a very inspiring person all around.”

“When the economy fell, both of my parents were laid off. For a long time I was terrified that we were going to be kicked out of the house and put on the streets. Fortunately, through retirement funds, we kept the house, but I watched other people I cared about lose their homes. Anything that anyone can do to fix that is well wanted and needed. Thank you so much for being that ‘anyone’.”


Robert has spent most of his life in Sonoma County. But last year, his family was crammed into one room in a family member’s apartment. Robert made an important decision to put his children first, and address his substance abuse issues. After finishing the program, he and his family moved into the Kids First Family Shelter.


Establishing a healthy connection to another person is the first step to rebuilding a life. “For me, the best part of the shelter was connecting with my case manager, Emily, who really helped with my parenting skills. She had a lot of good suggestions and she’s respectful.”

“This may sound counterintuitive, but the kids loved living there,” he says. “We all loved the structure, the order. The kids loved the playground, the art projects and the other kids.”


Once a connection is made, hope can take root. “Once we got settled, and could hear about how other people had found housing, we could find a way forward,” says Robert.


An intention is a focused and realistic goal. “It was useful to have help making a plan and a budget,” Robert says. “I’m an organized person, but I really enjoyed being accountable about our spending.”


Intention is deciding on a path to take; integrity is staying on it. Robert and his partner now work full- time. He works the graveyard shift and she works during the day as a caregiver. The family rents a three-bedroom town- home in Santa Rosa. Their schedules don’t allow much time together. “But we’re doing it. We have to,” says Robert.

Update from Mike

An update from Mike Johnson, COTS CEO, on how COTS is improving our homeless services system through innovation and collaboration.

Dear Friends,

Many of you have heard about this year’s sudden reduction in government funding. Before I get into the nuts and bolts, let me assure you that we are in good shape thanks to the Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors, the City of Petaluma, and private citizens who stepped up to support us this year.

Responding to challenge is part of our organization’s DNA. This time around, we’re adapting through collaboration and re-invention. Here’s what we’ve been up to:

  • We’re collaborating with the Veterans Resource Center to provide 21 homeless veterans with permanent housing and the services they need to move forward in their lives.
  • Our Sober Circle, involving numerous entities, has already convinced 20 homeless people with addictions to leave the streets and enroll in treatment and housing programs.
  • Last year, we provided expert consultation to North Sonoma County Services in Healdsburg. As a result, they housed 100% of their homeless families. This year, we hope to build a similar collaboration with Sonoma Overnight Services to house 72 clients from the Sonoma Valley.
  • Together with our healthcare partners, we are working to keep healthcare costs down for the entire community by providing alternatives to the Emergency Room for the most health-challenged street homeless.
  • Many of our clients deal with serious health challenges. All of them deal with stigma. This year, we are re-inventing our food programs into a Wellness Café, which will serve whole, healthy foods, including fresh Sonoma County produce. Our atmosphere will change too, offering a comfortable respite for our guests. We will also provide employment training to help our friends find and maintain jobs in the food service industry.

Thank you for making an investment in COTS that strengthens and enriches us all.


Mike Johnson, CEO

Top 10 Moments of 2015

10. Man who was homeless for 20 years sends Christmas cards from home

Our benefits advocate helped a gentleman (who had been homeless for twenty years) to obtain disability benefits, move into his own apartment, and retrieve his driver's license. He recently sent out Christmas cards using his home address.


9. AnnaBananza music festival honors the life of Anna Bachman


And raises over $16,000 for COTS!

8. A 10-year-old Mary Isaak Center gets a new coat of paint


7. A veteran from our partnership with the Veterans Resource Center gives thanks

“I just wanted you to know that Champ (service dog) and I love the new house and our housemates. The house and yard are beyond my dreams — planted a potted herb garden last night. Words cannot express how thankful I am for this chance. I vow to take advantage of it to get myself in position where I can help others.”


6. Our CEO encourages COTS supporters to become a mentor with Mentor Me …


… with the goal of breaking the cycle of homelessness for 80 kids.

5. A COTS kid earns a full scholarship to Stanford

One of our case managers ran into one of our program graduates at her full-time job at a bakery. Her big news was that her teenage daughter, who had struggled during the years they were homeless, had just been accepted to Stanford on a full scholarship.


 She wants to become a doctor and work with people who are low income.

4. Our new Board president learns that his contractor is a COTS graduate.

“In talking with our roofing contractor, he told me about how his life hit rock bottom 16 years ago due to substance abuse issues. Having lost everything, he wandered into COTS.


Through COTS' programs and support, he put his life back together, became a COTS counselor and helped others overcome their substance abuse issues, got his contractor’s license, and put his family back together.”

3. A Sonoma landlord rents to a homeless mom with cancer

In November, Rhonda was hospitalized with cancer and was facing spending Christmas in a homeless shelter with her family.  A Sonoma landlord heard about her family’s situation and offered his two-bedroom rental to them at a price they could afford — which was less than he would typically charge.

Because of this generous landlord, Rhonda, her husband, and their son were able to celebrate Christmas in a home of their own.

2. Our clients tell it best


We couldn’t agree more.

1. We collaborate with Child Protective Services to reopen our Family Emergency Shelter…


... and nearly triple our emergency shelter capacity for families.

Happy New Year to all of our COTS friends. May the year 2016 bring you joy!

A veteran and her two kids return home

Note: The above photo was taken after Susan shared her story, at a camp cleanup conducted in 2017.

Dear friends,

I never thought my family would be homeless, but last year it happened.

I’ve had medical problems since my time in the Army, so I’m unable to able to work. When my husband, an Iraq vet, found a good job in Sonoma County, we looked frantically for housing here. But nothing panned out. Our savings were gone, and our friends couldn’t afford to take us in anymore. We couldn’t get into shelters either, because we didn’t have a drug problem or abuse in our family.

We slept most nights in our street clothes along bike trails or in fields. I would sit up all night watching over my family, jumping at every sound, afraid that someone might harm them.

My VA case worker finally found us a condo, but we couldn’t scrape together the security deposit. That’s when I decided to call COTS. The case manager listened to all we’d been through and seemed to really care. She found us help with the security deposit, and within a week we signed the lease. Now we have a home again!

Our first night in our new home, we had just a couple of blankets on the floor. We got the kids showered and put pajamas on them for the first time in almost a year. After we tucked tem in, my husband and I sat there and watched them sleep — not because we were afraid, but because they were finally safe.

I have you to thank for this.

With much love and gratitude,