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Eight years.

Among the reasons to believe nonprofit chief Mike Johnson may speak from a unique view when he insists it’s imperative that Sonoma County adopt a dramatically new strategy against homelessness is this:

The eight years he lived on the streets of Petaluma.

“Human beings can get used to anything,” he reflects. “If it doesn’t kill you, you can acclimate.”

Having grown up in a dysfunctional family that bobbed about the Bay Area, Johnson as a young man grabbed hold of the bottle and sank with it.

“By the time I was 28, life unraveled. It just came apart.”

He was starving in Petaluma in 1991 and contemplating taking a step off the curb and into the path of a moving vehicle when a fellow homeless man sharing a bench at Walnut Park told him where he could get a free meal. Johnson discovered there was a soup kitchen operated by the St. Vincent de Paul Society and also survival assistance from a young humanitarian endeavor called COTS, Committee on the Shelterless.

He availed himself of the food and of the compassion shown by COTS founders Mary Isaak and Laura Reichek and their helpers, but he declined a bed in the organization’s cold-weather shelter. “It was hard to sleep and it was too hot,” he recalls.

Besides, at an encampment along a creek or beneath a bridge Johnson could drink or take methamphetamine.

“I did whatever I could to keep the misery at bay,” he said. “I never wanted to live that way. I didn’t enjoy it. But it became my life.”

For most of the 1990s, more than half of his 30s, Johnson grabbed construction-site work where he could, slept on the dirt and forgot what it was like to have a checking account, a phone or TV, bills, medical care, even a stick of furniture, a drivers license or a reason to keep track of what day of the week it was.

It wasn’t that long ago, in 1999, that he grew thoroughly sick of the homeless existence. He remembers telling Michelle Baines, then manager of COTS’ former Elwood Opportunity Center, a place with a shower and a phone and access to community resources, “I’m ready. I’m ready to change. If you give me a job I’ll keep it and you won’t be sorry.”

Baines hired him to cook at COTS’ winter shelter. Having worked in construction in his late teens and early 20s, Johnson also talked himself into a summer job performing repairs and odd jobs at the agency’s transitional house and other properties.

That was his new beginning.

Through a dozen-plus years he ascended the ranks of the ever expanding and increasingly comprehensive COTS. “My trajectory followed COTS’ growth very closely,” he said.

In mid-2013, the nonprofits’ board named him to succeed departing Executive Director John Records, who moved on whose more than 20 years at the helm had brought COTS national recognition for innovations it brought to helping people rise up from homelessness.

Now Johnson, lanky and soft-spoken but driven at age 52, runs the place. His office is on the third floor of the $3.4 million Mary Isaak Center in south Petaluma, home to a bustling community kitchen, separate shelters for families and adults and myriad health, financial, therapeutic and other services aimed at helping people who are homeless to transition back into homes and productive lives.

Community leaders enthused by Johnson and his vision include Bill Schrader, the Exchange Bank chairman and former president and a veteran of the COTS board. Schrader said Johnson brings a wealth of experience to the challenges at hand.

“Most of all he’s somebody who has understood despair,” Schrader said.

“He’s determined, he’s practical, he’s passionate and he’s leading the charge on this.”

As CEO, Johnson is enormously proud of COTS’ successes, but he chafes to do more. Bottom line, he wants to see many more or, ideally, all of Sonoma County’s more than 4,000 homeless people — many of them veterans, children and adults aged only in their teens to early 20s — offered affordable, open-ended rentals.

He speaks of being well aware that the obstacles to making that happen are daunting. To start, he said, to build the necessary apartments and other housing units would cost about half a billion dollars.

“If anything,” he added, “the NIMBYism is a bigger issue than the money.” He’s seen the proposals to construct housing for low-income people often are met by fierce neighborhood opposition.

Twenty-five years after he landed on the streets and then found his way to COTS, Johnson concluded that the fundamental problem in dealing with homelessness is this:

“We have not yet decided that it is unacceptable to have people living on the street.”

He perceives that by and large, Americans are not willing to commit the money and effort necessary to provide substantial assistance to those who’ve lost their homes. An ideology of rugged individualism causes people to offer the homeless some degree of assistance but also insist that they pull themselves up by the bootstrap.

That suffices in some situations, he said, “but it doesn’t work if you don’t have any bootstraps.”

He finds it a simple truth that many of the people living on the streets will not escape them without a great dose of help rebuilding their lives and moving onto a path to a home.

Johnson is convinced that the best thing that can happen immediately in Sonoma County is for the nonprofits, philanthropists and public agencies that now serve homeless people in a largely piecemeal, uncoordinated way to “put aside our competitive nature” and genuinely work together to share best practices and streamline efforts.

He has been reaching out to other nonprofits to make that happen. He’s also had COTS apply for a Veterans Administration grant that would provide $2 million a year for three years to fund a unified undertaking to get Sonoma County’s more than 400 homeless veterans off the streets and into homes.

He said he’s confident that with funding and community focus, the tragedy of homeless vets could be solved in the county. And with that success completed, the collaboration could move on to assuring homes for the local families that have no home, then for the youth on the streets, then for chronically homeless adults.

It may sound like a pipe dream, but not to a CEO up out of the gutter.

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