"If families are out on the street, we're not doing good enough."

— Mike Johnson, CEO of COTS

More than a month after a badly decomposed female body was discovered on McNear peninsula, just a few blocks from Petaluma's bustling downtown, police have yet to determine the woman's identity. What's known is that she probably died alone, with no friends or family members around to say goodbye. By the time she was located, police said her corpse was skeletal.

Last Thursday, someone walking their dog along Willow Brook Creek at the north end of town discovered the body of a dead man lying near a string of homeless encampments mostly hidden from public view. Evidence on the scene indicated that he too had died alone.

Both of the deceased are believed to have been homeless, members of a growing population of transients hunkered down in a series of makeshift encampments alongside the Petaluma River.

While most of us don't know them personally, these people are our neighbors. Should we not try to do more to help them?

With a median household income in excess of $76,000 a year, Petaluma is one of the more affluent cities in the country. We have a model emergency homeless shelter and program, COTS, that is recognized nationwide as one of the most effective and innovative of its kind, supported by dozens of caring volunteers and generous benefactors.

Despite this, hundreds of people in Petaluma are still living on the edge and, sometimes, dying long before their time.

In her story this week on the river's homeless encampments, reporter Janelle Wetzstein interviewed some of these people who, in just a few weeks, will begin to face more challenging circumstances as the weather turns colder and wetter. While not all of the homeless in our community are inclined to seek help, many of those who do will encounter a discouragingly long waiting list to access COTS' services.

Of the roughly 500 people who come to COTS each year, the organization is only able to place about half in permanent or temporary housing. The half who are not placed continue to cycle through the emergency shelter because there is not enough affordable housing in the community to accommodate them.

Such people, according to COTS' CEO Mike Johnson, often work entry level jobs and don't have enough income or work history to qualify for a rental. They often don't qualify for disability, veterans' benefits or other state or federal assistance, and so remain homeless.

Johnson has said that he and COTS want to eliminate homelessness in Petaluma, and they have an ambitious plan to achieve that very difficult goal. It's called Integrity Houses, where unrelated adults share a rental house in order to reduce each individual's costs. With three to five adults sharing the expense, their combined rents add up to the going rate.

There are nine Integrity Homes in Petaluma. Johnson's goal is to expand that number to 50. The challenge is finding home owners willing to participate, so COTS is diligently seeking people willing to rent out their 3- to 4- bedroom houses at market rates.

If you or someone you know is in a position to help, please consider participating in the Integrity Homes project. Or consider making a donation today. To reach the Committee on the Shelterless, call 765-6530 or visit www.cots-homeless.org.

Achieving COTS' ambitious goal will require this community's strong support. But given Petaluma's collective generosity and compassion for helping neighbors in need, it's not impossible. Now is the time to see whether COTS' call to action will resonate enough to eliminate or significantly reduce the homeless problem in Petaluma.