“The danger of homelessness,” says Mike Johnson, “is that it’s so much about the loss of hope, dignity, respect and self-respect: that connection with your community, family and friends. When that is severed, it leaves people adrift.”
Johnson, 51, who works with COTS – the Committee on the Shelterless – speaks from personal experience.
After a too-early marriage collapsed, “I started using alcohol to dull the pain … Eventually it got out of control and I slowly lost one thing at a time.”
In the summer of 1991, he found himself in Petaluma. He had skills – graphic artist, architectural illustration and a variety of construction work – but his truck was impounded and he’d lost his last place to stay. “I wound up on the street with a sleeping bag and a small suitcase, no money in my pocket, no nothing.
“The idea of homelessness was a complete abstraction. It was this feeling of being completely lost, outside humanity. You feel shame. You don’t want to admit your life has come to this so you suffer in isolation. It happens to a lot of people.”
Johnson had been in Petaluma only two weeks. He knew nothing about the city. “There are tricks to surviving but I didn’t know any: where to find food, how to access any resource – not that there were many in those days.
“I wandered around, not eating, for about five days. I was seriously contemplating ending my life. I didn’t want to starve to death and didn’t care much if I lived or not.”
On the morning of the fifth day, Johnson was sitting in Walnut Park, head in hands, when a man sat down beside him. “I’ve watched you wander around here for days,” he said. “You look like you’re new in town. Did you know there was a soup kitchen at the end of D Street?”
“I’d heard about soup kitchens,” Johnson says, “but it was just a phrase. “But the word ‘soup’ sounded really good to me and the word ‘kitchen’ didn’t sound bad. I had nothing to lose.”
He recalls that first time at The Kitchen, run then by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. “Imagine starving and walking in a door, smelling roasted turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy; hearing silverware tinkling, people laughing and seeing lots and lots of others just like me.”
He pauses. “It’s hard to describe the gratitude one feels when their life is being saved. I hadn’t even eaten, yet in that moment I knew I could go on living. There was a feeling of grace in my heart and mind, that somebody must be looking out for me. It seems almost fateful, as if there was a purpose in that meeting in the park.”
In those days, Johnson says, the only homeless services available in Petaluma were the daily noon meal and, in the winter, shelter at the armory. “For folks like me, on the street, there was no clear path to work your way out of the situation. We had a way to stay alive and out of the elements during the worst times of the year.” But that was it. “No matter how hard we worked, we were stuck in this quagmire of homelessness.” Without a place to shower, clean clothes, telephone and alarm clock – things most of us take for granted – there was no way to show an employer one were stable and would show up. “It’s like rolling a rock uphill to hold a job while being homeless.”
In 1996, COTS took over operation of The Kitchen and opened, behind it, the Opportunity Center, giving homeless persons a place to shower and clean up, a base to try and get work, start putting the pieces back together.
COTS was formed in 1988 by Petalumans Mary Isaak and Laure Reichek out of their concern for local homeless persons. “I was extremely lucky,” Johnson says, “to have come in contact with COTS and The Kitchen. Looking back at how my life and the life of the organization converged, it was one of those things that make you think there was some grace at work.”
But, continues Johnson, as important as the Opportunity Center was at meeting basic needs, “it wasn’t nearly enough. It gave people a way to be dignified in homelessness, but that was it.”
In 1998, Johnson “started to feel a fork in the road was approaching.” One was to continue on the path he was on and wind up dying on the streets. “I’d seen that happen over and over with people who’d given up. I didn’t want to be one of them: I knew there was more to me than that.” His other choice was to “get my act cleaned up, go back to work and start the long process of rebuilding. Alcohol had already taken away what was my life, now it was affecting my mind and body.”
What happened was a connection with Michelle Baynes, manager of the Opportunity Center. “She saw I was perhaps different in a lot of ways from others who were there. I had a pretty good education, good training and skills, a foundation to build on. She was hugely supportive of me: here was a guy who, with a little bit of help could make it work, go places.”
Baynes gave him the job of cook in the winter shelter. “I made a firm commitment to myself,” he says. “I had two goals: to never touch alcohol again and to keep the job I had, no matter what. To this day I’ve kept both.”
The following year, Baynes made him coordinator of the winter shelter program. “It was a great experience, learning how things are run, how to manage fifty-odd people. Here I was, helping folks like me stay alive, in a position to encourage them to do the same thing I was trying to do. It was a great feeling to have woken up. Up until then it didn’t dawn on me there was so much need for people to help other people. I thought everyone was out for themselves. I discovered what was meaningful was sharing yourself and what you had to give with others and helping them make positive changes in their lives, awakening that sense of compassion and empathy for folks like me. I got tremendous rewards from seeing little things I did make changes in people’s lives. It was an epiphany, like waking up a new person, and discovering you are truly human.”
When Baynes needed a leave of absence, John Records and John Sedlander, who were running COTS gave Johnson her job. “I wanted it badly,” Johnson says. “There was a real opportunity here – not just to give people showers, telephones, clean clothes and a place to hang out, but to help them with goals for a better life.”
He and Sedlander talked about programs, starting small, with case managers going over goals, helping people plan, get identification, hook into health care, get a driver’s license.
“It was the beginnings of what we now call the Work Right program. And during that period, a larger vision began to take form – this place.” Johnson gestures around at the three-story Mary Isaak Center on Hopper Street, a multi-service center open 24 hours a day, offering people long-term stability. The center became reality in 2004.
Johnson and Sedlander noticed, during the winter, when shelter was available, people stayed during the day, working with case managers, taking part in programs, sometimes stopping or reducing alcohol use and beginning to have hope for a brighter future. “There was this sense they were engaged with us, participating.” Then the shelter would close “and they’d be back on the street, surviving in crisis mode. The old pressures would come into play and a lot of times they’d lose that momentum, the hope and sense of progress.”
A place was needed where people were surrounded by support and others like them, also trying to make progress, where services wrapped around to give them everything they needed to rebuild their lives. They could stay six months, get intensive services, then exit to a transitional living program or their own home or apartment.
“It worked better than we could have imagined,” Johnson says. “Those early days were transformative for me. I found I had great empathy and people skills. John Sedlander trained me in budgets, facilities, maintenance, you name it. I discovered an affinity for management and was on the ground floor of developing cool stuff to help people.”
Johnson was part of the team that turned the Mary Isaak Center from dream to reality and, though family programs were still a large part of what COTS was about, he, Records and Sedlander worked on program development centered around “homeless adults like me.”
Johnson offers statistics. In 2003, the last year the Opportunity Center programs ran, they saw 629 individuals. Fourteen people went into transitional housing, eight into permanent housing.
The first year the Mary Isaak Center opened, 21 people went into transitional housing and 49 into permanent homes. “While it was a huge increase initially,” Johnson says, “it was still about 10 percent overall.” Now 30 percent of people leaving the Mary Isaak Center go into permanent housing, and 77 percent of families and adults leaving transitional housing are permanently housed.
“We know we have the right model. We’ve exceeded by 100 percent the national average for the work we’re doing here.”
Johnson was put in charge of the Mary Isaak Center when it opened. Then he became the center’s director, and after that the Assistant Executive Director in Charge of Programs. He’s spent his last three years as Chief Operations Officer. In July, he takes over John Records’ position as Chief Executive Officer.
“ The path to where I am now,” he says, “started long before I knew what was happening. John [Records] had plans for me long before I had plans for me.
“It’s been a fabulous dream to put it together. But we never stop trying to be better. Good enough is never good enough when it comes to helping people become housed again. If it’s anything less than 100 percent, it’s not good enough.”