Profile: Coalition On Temporary Shelter CEO Cheryl P. Johnson

CEO Cheryl “Che’row” P. Johnson has been at the helm of the Coalition On Temporary Shelter (COTS) for 27 of its 35-year history, overseeing the purchase of three new facilities and many new programs.

COTS exists to alleviate homelessness by enabling people to achieve self-sufficiency and obtain quality affordable housing. Started as a church project in 1982, today the organization manages multiple facilities with a staff of more than 90 people and an annual budget in excess of $7 million. Annually, COTS serves more than 2,000 Detroit-area homeless people in its emergency shelter and approximately 450 individuals and families in its transitional and permanent housing programs.

COTS partnered with IFF’s Detroit-based real estate services team, which has expertise in early childhood education facilities, to re-think an early education center housed at a COTS facility. The new space incorporates early childhood best practices, such as providing separate spaces for children of different ages, thanks to IFF’s engagement with the project architect. Going forward, IFF and COTS are conducting a financial feasibility study to see which model of childcare might work best for COTS facilities.

  1. You’ve been with COTS since 1990. What’s your first memory related to the cause of homelessness/supportive housing, and why have you stuck with it for so long?

Prior to coming to COTS, I was working with youth. I remember a young man that was aging out of my program – when he turned 18, he would literally be homeless. When the staff bid him farewell, they sent him to COTS, and that was the first time I heard of the organization. Years later, I came to have a deeper understanding of the issues related to homelessness.

I really enjoyed working with youth, but honestly I got so burnt out – after some time, it takes an emotional toll. I decided to do something different, but I knew I still had to be in a place where I’d be helping people – that’s just my calling for life. So I came to COTS in 1990 as the Shelter Director. My intention was to stay for two years and go back to working with children – 27 years later, I’m still here.

Back in 1990, the agency had its emergency shelter, and we were just starting to develop transitional housing, which is another form of shelter for the people we serve where they can stay up to two years. As we developed transitional housing, we started to learn more about permanent affordable housing and how to use Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) to develop it. I started traveling around the country – San Francisco, Chicago, New York – to visit the locations that had the best developments in the country, and I honestly fell in love with the whole notion that we can end homelessness. That’s why I stayed so long.

  1. How have the needs of Detroit’s homeless population changed over time, and how have you and COTS evolved to meet those needs?

About 5-6 years ago, I was given the opportunity to go on a sabbatical sponsored by one of our biggest foundation supporters, the McGregor Fund. They wanted me to spend time focusing on things that I would not have the opportunity to do as the CEO of COTS, so I went to San Francisco for 1.5 years to study integral coaching – a form of executive coaching that really takes in consideration all the aspects of the head, the heart, and the body in helping people be the best they can be.

While on sabbatical, I also had time to pause and reflect, something I called “Selah.” One of the things that struck me was that many of the heads of homes who I met as children in the early 90swere coming back now as adults with their own children. The question that raised was: Why didn’t giving them housing break that pattern? What I realized was that we couldn’t focus solely on homelessness because homelessness is really a symptom of poverty. So if we don’t take on the issue of poverty, then we’re going to be in business forever – and that’s not what we want.

That’s when we decided to create a theory of change that could be a serious tool that helps families move out of poverty. The framework we created is called the Passport to Self-Sufficiency. It’s a coaching model centered on building really robust relationships with our families and coaching them through goal setting. We don’t just look at housing; we also look at health and wellbeing, education, career development, and economic mobility. We help them create goals in every one of those areas. And we don’t just help the head of household; we also look at the children so it’s a two-generation approach.

As we rolled out this model, we transitioned our emergency shelter to serve just families and made a decision that we would not serve single people anymore. We moved away from the traditional “case management” framework and instead implemented high-impact coaching relationships.

  1. So what’s the difference between a case management approach and the coaching model?

Case management is really about sending somebody somewhere for services or coordinating services across multiple agencies. We tend to see people fall between the cracks in that system – a system that has failed many people. People show up for a 9am appointment, don’t get to see a worker until 4:30 when they’re on their way out the door – it’s this whole thing of disrespect and what the client gets out of that is “I don’t matter.”

Coaching is a completely different model. It’s about putting the client at the center and putting what they want for themselves at the center. It’s about two people walking through that journey together. This approach really is not a quick fix – it’s not like we’re good after a few months; we’re often in relationships for 5-6 years or beyond, and some of them are very high-touch, which is why coaches only have about 10 relationships at any given time. We always say that if it’s legal, we’ll help them achieve it. When people feel that, know it, and believe it, you see them excel. It’s one thing to do the work and your outcomes are just these numbers. But we’re seeing these families that are not only moving into their own housing, but their kids are improving in their education, parents are thinking differently around how they are parenting, and at the end of the day you have a model for seeing a generation that exceeds the last generation. That’s really where our work is now, and I love what we’re doing.

  1. What do you wish other people knew about people experiencing homelessness?

A lot of people like to say “that’s a homeless person,” as if that’s who the person is. But that’s not true. They are just people who are experiencing a situation. They love their kids, and they want greatness for their kids, and they want greatness for themselves. If they aren’t doing or saying something ‘right,’ that’s because they’re just repeating the behaviors that they’ve seen around them. So if they’re around somebody who can help them shape a new narrative for themselves and their life, their behavior changes. It’s a matter of coaching them to those points.

  1. IFF has worked with COTS to develop early education facilities tied to your shelters and temporary housing. How do you respond to people who might ask, “Why do homeless people need daycare?”

Child care is not only relief to parents. Child care provides an opportunity for children to develop. I’ve raised four kids, and they were in childcare. It was my child care director who told me my daughter was very gifted in reading – she was reading at a 10thgrade level in 2nd grade. I had sensed it, but it was really my child care person who recognized it and made me aware of it and worked with her to develop it. It’s important for the child’s development to have a great quality group of folks who can identify those needs. We’ve found since we’ve transitioned to a family-only shelter that we’re finding more and more kids on the autism spectrum; the early education providers are able to identify that and get some intervention for those children at an early age.

  1. You studied classical music for 4 years when you were attending Kalamazoo College. Do you still have a connection to music?

Yes, I still sing and I put out a CD a few years ago. That’s another part of what I do in life; it’s a gift that I share with others. I hope that music is encouraging and lifting somebody’s spirits. I happen to be a person who has been granted the opportunity to actually be in a vocation that allows me to be my best self. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity. In everything I do, I’m always looking to relieve suffering in the world – even if it’s through my music.

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