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Streets Team making a difference

Homelessness is a complicated issue to solve. Often those experiencing homelessness have physical, personal, and mental health challenges that require teams of experts to address over long periods of time.

To address these issues, there are necessary and often innovative programs that help homeless clients overcome their barriers to health, housing, and employment. And then there are cultural philosophies that homeless service providers need to embrace to help homeless individuals succeed – a safe space to heal without judgment; love (sometimes tough love); empowerment and accountability; and a fierce advocacy, unwavering hope, and gritty commitment to help each one improve their lives. Lots of homeless service providers in Sonoma County get this right.

One homeless service provider that is getting it right in Petaluma is the Downtown Streets Team or DST, led by North Bay Director Karen Strolia. DST’s service model is based on homeless or low-income men and women serving as volunteers or Team Members on street clean up or beautification projects.

Team Members are held accountable to show up on time, complete tasks, and work well with others, necessary traits in any workplace. Those who show dedication and leadership skills can become Team Leads, then Operations Supervisors. In return, Team Members receive a non-cash stipend to help cover basic needs while also receiving much-needed case management and employment services to find housing and sustainable employment.

DST believes that employment restores hope and opens the door to other opportunities. The reality is that having a job gives many of us, homeless or not, a sense of dignity, self worth, and accomplishment.

DST has been around since 2005. They have an Open Door Policy – if a Team Member is not successful on their first try, they can reapply as many times as it takes until they are able to succeed. DST holds weekly success meetings (currently on the lawn of the Petaluma City Hall) to celebrate client successes, share a meal, and allow for peer support and engagement.

Through lots of trial and error, innovation, and listening to their Team Members and the community, they’ve become very successful in helping Members find jobs. DST is now in 16 cities in the Bay Area, including Petaluma.

It was recognized in 2018 as one of five Evidenced-Based Best Practices in Ending Homelessness in California, and was named a “Top 50 Innovation in American Government” by the Ash Institute at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Eileen Richardson, founder of DST, was named one of 30 Visionaries by the New York Times. She was awarded the “Athena Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2015 by the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, and was one of five winners of the 2019 James Irvine Leadership Award. Pretty impressive all around.

It takes a village to solve homelessness. DST participates in a weekly Monday conference call with other Petaluma organizations addressing homelessness — Petaluma Police Department, Petaluma Valley Hospital, Petaluma Health Center, Petaluma Fire Department, Petaluma City Manager’s Office, and COTS.

We talk about specific individuals that need assistance, suggest encampments for our Street Outreach Team to visit, and identify abandoned encampments that need cleaning. We are proactive so that small problems don’t become large unmanageable problems.

It’s a great collaborative village of professionals that truly care about making a difference. Welcome to the village, DST. We are grateful to be working alongside of you.

(Chuck Fernandez is CEO of COTS.)

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