Squid Speaks

Jenga Move…Squid has been debating where to celebrate the Fourth of July. Some of Squid’s buddies are having a potluck, but Squid is wary of such events. In Squid’s circle of friends there are always too many loaves of bread and Jell-O molds and not enough shrimp casseroles to go around. Potlucks are tenuous events that either come off spectacularly or crash and burn when there’s nothing to eat except calamari.

Speaking of tenuous, Squid was sad to learn that the longtime executive director of the Coalition of Homeless Providers, Katherine Thoeni, tendered her resignation to the coalition’s board of directors, effective immediately, on Sunday, June 9. Thoeni has been the virtual glue that holds together Monterey County’s complex web of homeless services and funding.

Under Thoeni’s leadership, the nonprofit Coalition has been the go-to agency to conduct the biennial homeless census count. The results of the count are crucial to Monterey County’s quest for state and federal grants.

Most recently, Thoeni steered the complicated process for Monterey and San Benito counties securing more than $12 million in Homeless Emergency Assistance Program funds from the state. Monterey County’s portion is $10 million, and those dollars are the key reason why the Peninsula is getting its first homeless shelter in Seaside, and will enable a planned Salinas shelter to make significant progress. Both of these shelters come after years of patchwork solutions or non-solutions. 

Less than two weeks before Thoeni resigned, on May 29, she and Community Foundation for Monterey County President and CEO Dan Baldwin masterfully facilitated the decision-making process of the Coalition’s Leadership Council. How to parse out a limited about of money to many worthy groups all wanting a slice of the pie? The answer is somewhere between elegance and forcefulness, which Baldwin and Thoeni executed, determining which projects would get HEAP funds and how much.

It turns out Thoeni's contribution to the process was foundational, and her work over the years with the Coalition positioned the county well for HEAP and beyond, says Jill Allen, the coalition's new board president, who took over the post from previous president Robin McCrae.

Allen is the executive director of Dorothy's Place in Salinas, the major homeless provider in Salinas' Chinatown area. McCrae is executive director of Community Human Services—which is partnering with Gathering for Women to create the new Seaside shelter.

Allen tells Squid's colleague that it was Thoeni who built the Coalition into the powerhouse it is today, expanding the organization's reach and ability to better serve the homeless throughout  since she took over several years ago. It's considered an innovative leader by similar coalitions around the state.

Thoeni suggested creating the Leadership Council, involving every mayor in the county, as well as placing a Monterey County supervisor in the role of chair. The move was a game-changer, getting municipalities involved in the issue like never before. Today the Coalition has a couple of key contracts with the county to provides services to the homeless. It also has more funding than ever before. 

When HEAP came along last year, it was a blessing—but for Thoeni, also a burden. Most counties serve as the agency overseeing and distributing HEAP funds, but the state entrusted the Coalition to do the job. Allen wonders whether Thoeni even slept over the last several months of planning and guiding the application and funding process. 

One hitch, however: The Coalition was not equipped with the financial structure necessary to handle more than $12 million, so Thoeni turned to the county to take the money in and cut the checks to the approved projects. What's that saying about best-laid plans? Allen says the county balked at the last minute, because the check from the state was made out to the Coalition and not the county. 

Allen declined to comment on Thoeni's sudden resignation because it is a personnel matter. 

"We can say it was sudden, we didn’t expect it, but I understand it," Allen says. "Because she had done a huge body of work and out of respect for that I have to say if thats what she felt she needed to do, then good luck to you."

Meanwhile Anastacia Wyatt, housing program manager for Monterey County, is concerned about Thoeni's sudden absence when it comes to getting HEAP contracts signed and money distributed on time.

Wyatt also notes that the count for the Homeless Census, conducted every two years to report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is late and those numbers are critical for other federal funds local agencies need. 

Oh, and the change of leadership happens while the Coalition itself was mid-move, from a Marina office to Seaside. 

Allen is now searching out an interim executive officer, a new HEAP coordinator and getting the process in place to find a permanent leader.

Crisis averted? Squid hopes so. The executive board has everything in hand to make sure HEAP funding goes out as planned, even if it's with added stress. 

There's a big ecosystem out there of good people and good organizations stepping up to find solutions to homelessness, but Squid didn't realize that the ecosystem was quite so fragile. Squid hopes whatever housing solutions they continue to build won't be toppled as easily as homeless encampments that can go down in a single day. 

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