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Petaluma food program on the move

Jerry Nagro of Petaluma makes some vegetable selections at the Salvation Army food program. COTS combined with Salvation Army to better serve those who need food assistance so that COTS could concentrate on working with people to find housing after the October fires. (CRISSY PASCUAL/ARGUS-COURIER STAFF)

HANNAH BEAUSANG ,

As Petaluma’s main homeless services provider hones its focus on housing during an acute crisis in the city, the nonprofit has transferred a food box program that serves hundreds of hungry residents to the Salvation Army.

The change in program leadership, which took effect Jan. 8, will allow the Committee on the Shelterless to invest resources into expanding its Rapid Rehousing and Integrity Housing programs, Chief Development Officer Sarah Quinto said. Those initiatives help place families and individuals in housing and provide financial assistance and supportive services to qualified applicants seeking housing.

“The recent fires have just really shown us how much more our community needs to do,” she said. “Even before the fires, there were challenges with housing.”

COTS’ kitchen, which dished out more than 110,000 meals last year, will continue to serve those in need, but with an increased concentration on a more health-focused menu through a funding partnership with the Hazen Family Foundation, Quinto said. About half of the diners receiving those meals are homeless.

COTS will also continue to deliver food boxes to more than 120 low-income households in the community.

Currently, COTS has a waiting list for its 146 shelter beds, 212 permanent hosing beds and 14 homes and apartments in its Integrity Houses, which are owned by private landlords, leased to COTS clients at a fair market rate and maintained by the nonprofit.

“We have some turnover, but not enough to come close to meeting the need,” Quinto said.

The nonprofit provided shelter for victims initially impacted by fires, but is anticipating a “second wave” as hotel vouchers from insurance companies expire and Sonoma County residents find themselves potentially ousted from their temporary shelters.

Quinto expects the expansion of a Rapid Re-Housing program, which helps families with rent and bills, will serve 572 people in the next three years. The five-year-old COTS program is the longest running in the county and last year served 89 people, she said.

COTS is also looking to create more opportunities for shared housing through the Integrity Housing Program, which currently operates in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Petaluma and Cotati.

“This is beyond just a housing question, it’s a home question,” Quinto said. “As soon as you start talking about a place to call home, it becomes something bigger. It’s a place to build hopes and dreams for the future, a place to hang your pictures and create memories and raise children.”

Meanwhile, those in need can pick up their free food boxes at the Salvation Army’s 721 South McDowell Blvd. location on Tuesdays from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.; and Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9:30 to 11 a.m.

The change in venue will also allow for better access than the Mary Isaak Center’s parking lot, which was often congested during pickup times, CEO Mike Johnson said.

Redwood Empire Food Bank and local grocers provide provisions for the boxes, and COTS has lent the Salvation Army volunteers to help with pickups.

The addition of COTS’ food program bolsters the Salvation Army’s current offerings, which reach about 25 to 30 families a day, Major Mitham Clement said. While under the COTS umbrella, the program serves more than 675 children and 375 seniors monthly, a number that Clement hopes to grow.

Providing food assistance eases the burden for folks who are struggling, freeing up dollars for other pressing expenses, he said.

“Growing up in a county that didn’t have a lot of food, I personally understand how it is to go without food. Not only that, but food is an essential, it’s a basic necessity that a family or a single person needs to have,” said Clement, who grew up in the Marshall Islands. “And so that’s why we make sure we do our part to help in that area.”

Meanwhile, the Redwood Empire food bank added a free food box program at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in November after noticing an increased need in the city, Director of Programs Allison Goodwin said. The free service is offered at 175 Fairgrounds Drive from 9 to 10 a.m. Fridays and is intended to supplement other programs.

As many as 110 families have been picking up food each week, Goodwin said.

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