As our national economic woes wear on, nonprofit organizations around the country are being tasked with finding solutions to numerous community crises. In Sonoma County, California, as in other towns, one of those groups tackles two issues with one fell swoop — people needing homes and people struggling to keep their homes. With their new home-sharing program, the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) offers two matchmaking functions:

  • Home seekers in need of affordable home-sharing arrangements with home providers who own their home, but who require rental income, special services, or companionship in order to remain in their home

  • Renters who are seeking other renters to share a home, apartment, or condominium

A family eats dinner at the COTS Petaluma Kitchen. Photo credit: COTS.

According to the program's coordinator, Amy Appleton, there are myriad reasons why people might need to step into a shared living situation: "Home-sharing may be a viable option for some homeowners and home seekers who are currently stressed financially, experiencing life transition, and/or looking for companionship. Some may want to consider exchanging a portion of rent to help around the shared home. The biggest sticking point in home-sharing for people may be their perception of risk. We'll help minimize risk by providing tools for each participant's use in order that they better inform themselves of the character, background, lifestyle, and financial stability of prospective housemates."

The home-sharing program, which is free to participants thanks to a generous contribution from an anonymous donor, comes just in time. Between 2009 and 2011, the number of homeless people in Sonoma County jumped by 40 percent, some 39 percent of whom are experiencing homelessness for the first time. Of course, the bad news gets compounded by shrinking budgets and tattered safety nets while individuals and families, alike, find themselves in need. Because of this spectrum, the COTS populations break down even further into:

  • Adult peer-to-peer home sharing between two or more people

  • Intergenerational home sharing between a 55 years or older home provider with a younger home seeker who is 18 years or older

  • Single parent peer-to-peer home sharing between two single families

The strategy is new to COTS. The group's executive director, John Records, saw a void in their services and decided to be pro-active, explaining, "To date, our housing programs have focused on helping our own homeless clients. But in these difficult economic times, our community has seen an increase in people who are having a tough time affording a rental, as well as an increase in people who are having difficulty staying in the homes they own. They are at risk of homelessness, and this program addresses the needs of both groups."

As inspiration, COTS looked to match-up projects already in place in other areas of the country, the clearinghouse for which is The National Shared Housing Resource Center (NSHRC). Though the NSHRC doesn't do the hands-on, ground-level screening that COTS does, they offer a Shared Housing Directory that lists home-sharing programs in a plurality of states, as well as Canada, Australia, and England.

A homeless Veteran on the streets of Boston, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Matthew Woitunski. Used under Creative Commons license.

With all of their initiatives, COTS aims to do more than just put a roof over someone's head; they want to also put some hope in their hearts. To that end, four components comprise the overall COTS approach:

Connection: Supportive and healthy relationships that prove reliable over time provide a foundation for people to develop hope. Personal connection with clients gives us the credibility to show them that we know how to help them, and that others in their situation have succeeded.

Hope: When a life has been shattered by abuse, accident, bad choices, or a combination of these, a person can feel hopeless. Without hope, there is no incentive to try to improve one’s circumstances. We help program participants rebuild their sense of hope with small changes that lead to bigger changes. In this way, we demonstrate that hope is rational.

Intention: Intention is the key to progress. Once there is hope for the possibility of a better life, COTS program participants are able to form intentions and set personal goals for their lives.

Integrity: Once connections are made, a sense of hope restored, and personal intentions developed, the COTS team holds each program participant — and our staff — accountable for taking actions in accord with their goals and dreams. Each success restores the program participant’s personal integrity and sense of control over his or her life, leading to bigger goals and more successes.

Through their shelter projects, COTS serves 2,000 a year by providing nearly 350 beds in Sonoma County. Annually, their Petaluma Kitchen serves more than 125,000 meals and delivers more than 750,000 pounds of food to people in need. The newly launched home-sharing program aims to put a dent in the number of people needing temporary housing by providing longer-term solutions.

If you would like to participate in a home-sharing program in your area, browse the NSHRC's Shared Housing Directory for local organizations.


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  • How to Start a Housing Co-op
Kelly McCartney


Kelly McCartney |

Having won prestigious literary competitions in both grade school and junior high, I attended college with a Scripps Howard Foundation scholarship, earned a BA in Journalism, and interned at Entertainment

Things I share: I seek. I write. I think. I roam. I listen. I care. I wonder. I help. I flirt. I try. I dream. I grow.