November 15, 2016 – Many view homelessness as an intractable problem where little can be done, but they are wrong. If we set our mind to it, we can end homelessness. COTS-Homeless.org in Petaluma is doing just that, and a group of Nevada County supervisors, council members, department heads, activists and police journeyed there for the day to find out how. Many of us rode in a bus driven by Supervisor Dan Miller. (A complete list of attendees and a video link are below).
COTS CEO, Mike Johnson, was pleased to host this group because of COTS’ philosophy that everyone benefits through collaboration and sharing best practices. Mike was homeless eight years before coming to COTS, working his way up from a kitchen worker to the CEO. He described himself as a “dead man walking” when he entered the program in 2001. “If nothing else, I want you to leave here knowing that beneath the rags, dirt, stubble, and disheveled appearance there beats the heart of human being who can be helped and ought to be helped.”
COTS offers a no-nonsense 24/7 program run by caring case managers who hold their clients accountable to individualized plans that, when followed, will get them into stable lifestyles as well as housing; something they want dearly. But, as Mike says, “they have to earn it” or it won’t work. Giving things away is the easy part, including housing as is done in housing first, “the hard part is rebuilding a human being from the inside out. If you don’t do that part of the work they will probably not be successful in the long term.”
COTS doesn’t track how many clients they place into housing as is typical here in Nevada County, but by how many are successful in long term housing. In this respect, COTS has been recognized nationally as a leader outpacing others by over two to one. While COTS has an exemplary program, they continue to look for ways to improve.
Mike isn’t a fan of tiny house villages: “Don’t they deserve better?” COTS provides an intensive education program and other support that assists their clients to return to independent housing and full lives.
Mike offered this advice for Nevada County to begin the journey to ending homelessness: Get a select group of no-nonsense community members together and agree on one big goal that everyone is passionate about. More funding is unlikely, “the strategy is that we not get bigger, we get better.”
Dan Miller said, “I came away convinced that Nevada County could use a 24/7 facility so the homeless population can access the services and programs that are offered. We need to work together as a community with common goals that we all agree on to end homelessness.”
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A seventy-five minute and a nine-minute video of the COTS visit can be found on www.ColivingNetwork.org. Also, check out some of the nongovernment funded self-supporting ideas we are working on at CoLiving Network. Coliving Network needs laptops for some of our clients to take online courses and find work. We also need one-on-one volunteers to work under our volunteer counselor, Steph Smith, to support our clients in their recovery and finding jobs. We will train you.
To end homelessness, we must learn to give the homeless the support they need to recover and stop treating them like they aren’t willing or able.
If you see any of the attendees listed below around town, please congratulate them for looking outside the “box” and ask them what they learned.
Nevada County: Supervisors Dan Miller and elect, Heidi Hall; Director of Human Services, Michael Haggerty; Behavioral Health, Michele Violet,
Nevada City: Council Member, Reinette Senum, City Manager, Mark Prestwich; Police, Shane Franssen,
Grass Valley: Council Members Lisa Swarthout and Jan Arbuckle
Streicher House, Pauli Halstead (trip organizer), Lew Sitzer; Sierra Roots, Dee Dinelli; Divine Spark, Shirley Kinghorn; Coliving Network, Greg Zaller
Hospitality House, our local overnight shelter, was invited to attend the tour but would not return our calls.