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For two decades Petaluma's nationally recognized homeless services agency, COTS, has been inextricably linked to its executive director, John Records.

So much so that Records has been called "John Cots" on occasion.

But after 21 years at the helm, Records is shifting to a consulting role with the Committee on the Shelterless, which offers permanent, transitional and emergency housing, food for the needy and educational and work assistance for about 2,300 individuals, children and families each year.

In no small part because of COTS' success, Records has been hired as a non-teaching public service professor and co-director of the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services at the State University New York at Albany's school of social welfare.

He will help lead a "budding consortium" of Albany and four other universities that plans to replicate in other social service settings the COTS "whole person" model of reducing homelessness.

"My heart will still be here with COTS," said Records, who turns 63 this summer.

Mike Johnson, the agency's chief operating officer, will become chief executive officer on July 1. Once homeless himself, Johnson, 50, has worked for COTS for 14 years in 11 jobs — starting out as a cook.

For Records, it was time to make good on a promise to his wife, Glena.

Long ago, he pledged that they would return to her beloved childhood home in the Rocky Mountains, so that now will be his home base. The couple will spend winters in Petaluma and Records will travel to New York as necessary. He will remain on the COTS board of directors and will continue in an advisory role for fundraising, development and program innovation.

Petaluma has benefitted greatly from Records' leadership on homeless issues, said Mayor David Glass.

"He has built a model for how to work collaboratively and humanize situations that but for the grace of god go all of us," he said. "The philosophy they built — a hand up rather than a hand out — they've made that work. They've united a community around an issue that so often tears communities apart."

The succession plan had been in the works for several years and coincides with the 25th anniversary of COTS.

Records began volunteering at COTS shortly after it was founded in 1988 by Mary Isaak and Laure Reichek. He was drawn to helping others partially because of his parents' mental illness and alcoholism.

Witnessing those troubles awakened his compassion, he said, and taught him there can be hope even in the darkest times.

In 1992, he became executive director for the agency, which at the time consisted of a 35-bed emergency shelter that opened in the winter to as many as 80 people sleeping on mats on the floor. Its annual budget in the first few years was $140,000.

Today, COTS has a budget of $3 million, about a quarter of which comes from city, county and state funds. About 27 percent comes from foundation and federal grants and 20 percent from donors.

It offers 320 beds each night, delivers 762,000 pounds of food each year and serves about 126,000 meals annually in the Petaluma Kitchen.

Each year, 2,300 people are housed, about half in the emergency shelter, transitional and permanent housing programs. Others are served in permanent housing programs for veterans or shared market-rate housing.

A 2012 survey by the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness compared COTS' costs and success rates to programs in seven states. COTS had double the rates of housing its clients into more permanent living arrangements and was twice as cost-effective.

It is that performance that Records will take to Albany and mold to improve other social service models.

Unlike Records, Johnson was introduced to COTS as a client. He had been homeless and directionless in Petaluma for several years. One of the COTS managers spotted potential in him and offered him a job as a cook at the center.

"I have a real instinctive feel for the people we're working with," he said. "I also know what motivates them."

Records called Johnson is "the most natural manager" he's ever met. He's been running day-to-day operations for the past three years with Records at his side.

"Long ago, I identified Mike as someone who could do the job," Records said. "In a while, people won't remember me because Mike will be doing such a great job."

COTS works closely with other social service agencies in Petaluma, helping close gaps in care, something Records has encouraged along with the "whole person" approach to helping clients change their lives.

"We're so proud to be their partners," said Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center. "Most communities don't have that reinforced safety net we have.

"John brings his heart. He brings passion. He brings the hope and the will of each of the clients he represents when he speaks about them," she said.

Records said he hopes his legacy will be one of hope and compassion — words he once heard from a client of COTS.

"She opened the door and I introduced myself," he recalled. "She said, 'The word on the street is that you care about us.' These are people who are broken, who have run out of hope, who have run out of optimism," he said.

"I hope they know there are people — and a community — out there that care."

Having been the recipient of that concern, Johnson feels a sense of responsibility to build on COTS' successes.

"I have seen so much pain and struggle from people, like me, who were trying to work their way out of their troubles," he said. "It's hugely gratifying for me that I can make a difference in the community with COTS."

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)