COTS in search of private donations

When people talk about the cycle of homelessness, Terin Schmitz knows one thing: she doesn't want to repeat it.

Born to a heroin-addicted mother and alcoholic father, Schmitz, 20, worked to graduate high school early so she could provide for her ailing dad. After he died, she found herself homeless, pregnant and unable to support herself.

When her father was alive, the two of them lived in a car for a while. Schmitz wanted more for her daughter, Gabriela.

Then she visited COTS, the Committee on the Shelterless homeless service center in Petaluma.

On Wednesday, Schmitz shared her story with 450 business owners, bankers, educators and other community members in COTS' 10th annual breakfast fundraiser at the Petaluma Veterans Building.

Schmitz proudly vows she will not return to homelessness, will not be an absent or neglectful parent and will work hard to help better her situation.

She completed a healthy parenting class, another on being a successful renter and courses on creating a resume and cover letter. She is going back to college to become a nurse.

"Gabriela is the reason I'm working so hard to build a great life for us," Schmitz said. "Now I'm getting from COTS what my parents never gave me."

Regrouping after a loss of $650,000 in government funding over the past four years, COTS is expecting another reduction of $300,000 in the next two years, said Mike Johnson, the organization's new chief executive officer.

Thus, the nonprofit agency is in the midst of a $1 million, five-year fundraising effort. The goal for Wednesday's fundraiser was $400,000.

COTS, which has traditionally received about a third of its $3.6 million annual operating budget from government sources, must now rely more heavily on private donations and foundation grants to fund its nationally recognized emergency housing programs for families and children, homeless prevention work, transitional housing and food programs.

The agency, now in its 25th year, serves 2,300 children and adults each year, offers 319 beds each night and provides 126,000 meals annually.

COTS uses "evidence-based services" in an effort to solve the underlying causes of homelessness, not simply offering a free meal or bed for the night.

The results are success rates about double that of other programs, Johnson said.

A seven-state study conducted in 2012 by the National Alliance to End Homelessness shows the average success rate for permanent housing placements from emergency shelters is 15 percent. At COTS, 30 percent of residents who leave the Mary Isaak Center's emergency shelter go into permanent housing.

For those leaving transitional housing for permanent housing, the average success rate was 40 percent. COTS' rate is 77 percent.

Donor Bill White, chairman of Basin Street Properties development firm, has been a financial supporter and a volunteer mentor with the agency for 20 years. He urged others to donate $1,000 or even $25,000 on a five-year plan to support COTS.

COTS programs focus on the whole person, he said, to help rebuild lives long-term.

As he moves into his first full year of leading the agency, Johnson invited community members to join in his lofty goals.

"We know we've succeeded when we never see another child sleeping in a car or under a bridge," Johnson said. "That's our mission."