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Homeless shelter needs your help

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The presence of 200 homeless people camping alongside a public trail in clear view of motorists traveling on Highway 12 in Santa Rosa has heightened public awareness of the homeless crisis in Sonoma County, with many demanding that public officials work harder to fix the problem.

But doing so is not that easy. Just ask Chuck Fernandez, CEO of the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), Petaluma’s 31-year-old program that provides temporary shelter and resources to homeless people seeking to find and keep permanent housing.

At COTS’s annual fundraising breakfast Dec. 5, more than 430 prospective donors heard Fernandez talk about the successes and challenges in battling a homeless problem that he said was already “terrible” even before the 2017 fires obliterated more than 5,000 county homes and displaced upwards of 20,000 residents.

On the positive aide, Fernandez noted that COTS served more than 1,600 people over the past year, including 437 who were permanently housed. COTS’ Mary Isaak shelter on Hopper Street has 112 beds and provides year-round emergency shelter and transitional housing for adults with an additional 35 beds placed upon the center’s cafeteria floor during winter months. COTS’ Kids First Family Shelter has 11 rooms with 35 beds for families with children.

Yet both shelters are completely full today, and more beds and support services are needed since an estimated 3,000 people are now homeless in Sonoma County with about 300 of them walking the streets of Petaluma, many under the age of 21. Fernandez says that he’s opened up preliminary discussions with city officials to discuss options for building an additional facility and remains hopeful despite the multiple challenges facing the organization.

Along with the perpetual search for adequate funding, COTS is in the midst of an ongoing transition from a “housing readiness” model to a “housing first” approach under which they must accept, per a new state law, anyone regardless of whether they are sober or under the influence of narcotics.

Previously, COTS’ rules called for clients to avoid the use of drugs and alcohol at its facilities, and chores were assigned to all residents who were expected to contribute to the success of the facility by helping maintain it. Housing readiness programs like Rent Right helped teach clients about the nuances of apartment leases and how to be a good tenant while the Work Right program taught interviewing skills and how to build a resume so as to enhance their job prospects.

But COTS’s fervent desire to comply with California’s “housing first” mandate, whereby vital public funding is contingent on allowing any homeless person to stay at the shelter irrespective of their sobriety or drug use, led to the dissolution of those housing readiness programs and practices. And as a result of admitting people with substance abuse and mental health problems, the number of behavioral disturbances at the facility has increased markedly, necessitating more calls for police assistance. Without the programs COTS had previously used to ensure people’s success in finding and keeping housing and jobs, it’s been harder for people to stay housed.

Fernandez, who had been on the job a little over one year, says COTS is now in the process of restoring those programs in hopes of “striking a balance” between the “housing first” mandate and providing social services to help people achieve success in finding and keeping permanent housing.

“It’s one thing to find housing; it’s another to be stable enough to keep that housing” Fernandez told me. “We want to strike a balance so more people can move forward,” he added, noting that COTS is now in the process of reinstating the Rent Right and Work Right programs in addition to restoring some of the structure and discipline that include commonsense rules to encourage client accountability.

It’s a tricky balancing act. Acknowledging the sound logic of state policy that assumes “once you are in a safe, warm environment you are more likely to be accepting of services,” Fernandez said the reality is the “severity of the problems in the people we see. We are dealing with some really fragile human beings.”

Effectively housing people long-term, he said, frequently requires “wraparound services” that include case management, substance abuse counseling and mental health treatment, adding that COTS has partnered with St. Joseph Health, operator of Petaluma Valley Hospital, as well as the Petaluma Health Center.

With Christmas coming up next week, it’s a perfect time to consider helping COTS in their noble mission of reducing homelessness in the south county. Cash donations are always needed, and volunteers will be enlisted early next year to renew the Work Right and Rent Right programs. To reach COTS, call 765-6530 or visit www.cots.org.

Such a wise investment of your time and money is probably best illustrated in people like Samantha Yee, a former COTS client and current supporter who spoke eloquently at the breakfast meeting earlier this month. Because of COTS, Yee was able to find permanent housing and a job at Exchange Bank. Just recently, Yee earned a promotion at the bank.

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.)

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