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Petaluma homeless advocates team up with library


Petaluma’s leading homeless services provider has joined forces with the city’s library in an attempt to reach a broader segment of the area’s most vulnerable population.

The evolving partnership between the Petaluma Regional Library and the Committee on the Shelterless provides the nonprofit with an outpost to connect with those who might not otherwise utilize the organization’s services, either because they’re unaware of what’s offered, apprehensive about seeking help, or because they’ve been asked to leave the shelter in the past, COTS Disability Benefits Advocate Barbara Pieper said.

The relationship began when library branch manager Joe Cochrane took his post about two years ago and has blossomed in ensuing months, he said. Recognizing that the library often serves as a “living room” for the transient population, he approached COTS about ways to work together.

“We do have a shelterless population that uses the library,” he said. “And I’m a person who likes to meet situations like that head on. In other words, we had to find a solution of how to make the library a welcoming place to all.”

Early conversations paved the way for the library to host a series of COTS Rent Right workshops, where COTS clientele and library patrons learn to navigate a competitive housing market and to boost their financial literacy.

Using the success of the workshops as a stepping stone, Pieper began to hold weekly office hours at the library, where she connects people with social security, military or disability benefits that could help launch them into financial stability.

She said COTS having a physical presence at the branch also helps to cut down on calls to police about potentially problematic patrons. Cochrane also makes it a point to introduce himself to new people in the library to build relationships and help to enforce rules about standards of behavior when necessary.

“Joe is amazing, he has set up a place that’s warm and welcoming to our entire community and people appreciate that,” she said. “When they don’t appreciate it as much as they should we assist him in making it clear to individuals that this is a pretty good thing and they need to appreciate it, otherwise they’re going to need to move on.”

Pieper works in concert with Outreach Specialist Randy Clay, who spends several days a week at the library interacting with the homeless population, acting as the first point of contact to help develop a plan to meet their needs.

“This helps us find ways to meet people in their domain, whether it be out on the street or in the library and try to build that rapport,” he said. “People just see us interacting with other people and trying to get them support, and it makes it easier for us to be able to approach them or they come and approach us and they ask what it is we have to offer.”

Since Clay began to conduct outreach at the library this September, he estimates he’s been able to reach around 30 people, about half of whom end up using the shelter’s services. He highlighted success stories, including a homeless woman in her 50s who reached out after observing Clay working with other people in the library. She’s been at the shelter for several months and frequently volunteers at the nonprofit, he said.

As of last year, county data shows that 3,000 people across the county were homeless, and while the outreach program won’t solve Sonoma County’s homeless crisis, it can play a role in bolstering individual successes, Pieper said.

“Not all of our points of contact end up in the shelter. Sometimes the success is really in aiding people with referrals or how to best utilize their time or their resources or keeping their behaviors in check,” Pieper said.

Last Friday, Clay sat at a table sheltered by shelves of books as he talked to Antonio Morales, an Army veteran who’s been living on the streets of Petaluma for two years since he lost his job. Morales said he goes to COTS’ Mary Isaak Center for lunches, though he hasn’t made use of the overnight accommodations.

He visits the library almost every day to use the computers to search for jobs and he’s working with Clay to secure his veterans benefits, which he hopes will help him take the next step to find housing.

“Everyone is really nice and helpful and knowledgeable,” he said of the library.

The two organizations in May signed a memorandum of understanding that reinforces their desire to continue to grow the relationship, which comes at no cost to the library, Cochrane said. He’s working to help other Sonoma County libraries, including Santa Rosa and Guerneville branches, to forge similar relationships with homeless services agencies in their jurisdiction, an approach that COTS CEO Mike Johnson praised.

“Collaboration and partnership with the community and with each other is the only way we’re ever going to solve homelessness,” Johnson said.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)