A homeless man is bedding down for the night in a doorway near a restaurant. By the entrance of a store, a homeless woman begs for food. Are you going to go inside or avoid the businesses?
Faced with those realities, Petaluma's Committee on the Shelterless is appealing to local business owners to take a larger role in providing financial support for its award-winning homeless services.
With the loss of government redevelopment funds, COTS has had to turn its funding model upside down — from two-thirds government grants to two-thirds private funding.
It's a momentous change from the way COTS has traditionally raised funds to finance its programs, which include emergency housing for families and children, homeless education, support and transitional housing, and food programs.
COTS representatives appealed to several hundred business owners, bankers, educators and community leaders Wednesday in Petaluma to reach a one-day fundraising goal of $1 million, three times what was pledged last year in COTS' annual breakfast program.
The challenge is to demonstrate to business owners how a reduction in homeless services translates to a quantifiable loss in dollars and cents, thus making support of COTS an investment in a business's success.
"You're our partners. You're our key to success," COTS Executive Director John Records told the audience assembled in the Veterans Memorial Building.
Academic research has focused primarily on the social aspects of homelessness. So COTS enlisted Robert Eyler, president of Economic Forensics & Analytics, to analyze potential costs to Petaluma's economy if homeless services are reduced.
"If places like COTS didn't exist," Eyler said, "the homeless community would have much greater interaction with the business community — mostly to its detriment."
Regardless of the type of business, he concluded, the presence of homeless people can reduce the flow of customer traffic and make a location less desirable for new and existing businesses, their customers and clients.
If $1 of every $100 spent in downtown Petaluma were lost because of increased homeless impacts, direct and indirect revenue losses could be as high as $20.6 million annually, said Eyler, who also serves as the director of the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University.
If a reduction in COTS' services caused downtown Petaluma businesses to lose just a quarter of a percent of revenue, or about $2.77 million annually, Eyler's study estimates job losses, business revenue and tax receipt losses to all of Petaluma could total $5 million annually.
COTS has been recognized nationally for its innovative and cost-effective programs that have helped thousands of individuals and families since it was founded in 1988.
The organization has helped more than 20,000 homeless children and adults with its "traditional values" assistance that stipulates "no chore, no bed," Records said.
"Just last night, 40 people called us up in desperation, hoping their place on the waiting list had opened up," he said.
"Our success rates are astonishing," Records said. In its most recent surprise drug and alcohol test, not one COTS client tested positive.
In a plea for financial pledges Wednesday, Exchange Bank President Bill Schrader, a COTS board member, called the nonprofit agency "worthy of your investment."
"COTS needs your help and it needs it now," he said. "This is not a problem halfway around the world, it's halfway down the block."
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