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.