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Petaluma homeless advocate expanding to rental assistance

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Petaluma’s leading homeless service agency is increasing its footprint in Sonoma County, opening a rental assistance center July 18 in Santa Rosa that will help hundreds of fire victims get back on their feet.

Committee on the Shelterless, or COTS, is expanding its Rapid Re-Housing and Integrity Housing programs with the Santa Rosa service center that will help at least 572 displaced fire victims locate affordable, long-term housing over the next three years.

“What we saw with the fires is it didn’t discriminate,” said Sarah Quinto, COTS’ chief development officer. “It hit all sectors of the fabric of our society. This program is one way we can support people who need our help.”

The service center will assist those who are homeless, living in a temporary situation, or have fled the area altogether, find a more permanent solution.

Quinto said the program is designed for fire victims that have a source of income and can take the reins on payments once they’re situated. The average recipient will receive about $5,000 in financial support to help cover things like rental subsidies or a security deposit.

In all, the program will cost $2.8 million and is funded by the Redwood Credit Union Community Fund, Tipping Point Community and the County of Sonoma. The program is only 90 percent funded, and is seeking another $275,000 to bridge the gap.

Putting the service center in Santa Rosa was a no-brainer in the aftermath of last October’s destructive fires, Quinto said. Since 3,067 homes were destroyed in Santa Rosa alone, having a storefront location for displaced residents to visit gives COTS a stronger foothold where it’s needed most.

“It’s going to allow us to be a stronger partner to others in the community who are doing this work,” she said. “And so many of our clients come from Santa Rosa so it allows them to have better access to us.”

It’s also important to acknowledge the trauma associated with evacuations and the intense loss that comes with fire displacement, Quinto said. While many Sonoma County residents were able to slowly get back on their feet, others weren’t as resilient.

By enhancing programs like Rapid Re-Housing, which has a 90 percent retention rate, COTS hopes to be a better facilitator for fire victims still struggling to navigate a high-demand housing market that can discourage former residents from coming back.

“We exist because it’s impossible,” Quinto said. “If people could do it on their own they wouldn’t come to us. We have 30 years of relationships built in the community and they come to us because we’re a last stop for them.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremony comes a month before CEO Mike Johnson’s final day with the agency. Last month, COTS announced his departure after 14 years with the organization and five as its top executive.

Johnson declined to comment on his exit, requesting the focus stay on the Santa Rosa service center and the strength of the leadership team he’s walking away from. Interim CEO and board member Chris Ranney echoed that sentiment, and expects the Marin-based recruiting firm Janssen & Associates will locate his replacement “in two to three months or sooner.”

“We’re looking for someone that has a very strong passion for the work we do, that’s able to form strategic partnerships, and work with stakeholders in the community,” Ranney said.

The executive recruiting firm will be interviewing COTS staff and board members to identify the type of candidate the organization is seeking before conducting a national search. Ranney said housing and homeless issues will be at the core of COTS’ future, and an ideal candidate has knowledge of their intertwined impact in Sonoma County.

“Mike did a great job with us and we’re very happy for him and his next chapter, whatever that will be,” Ranney said. “He brought a lot to the table and did a lot for COTS over the years.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)