April survey will pinpoint county's most vulnerable homeless

Ankle-deep in mud, Lt. Tim Lyons of the Petaluma Police Department makes his way through a thicket of bushes as sheets of rain pelt down from the sky. He steps over a branch and there, near the rising banks of the Petaluma River, sits an oddly out of place pop-up tent hidden amidst the brambles.

"Hello, anyone in there?" beckons Lyons.

A man pops his head out of the tent with a bewildered look on his face. He is one of the hundreds of homeless people who live wherever they can lay their head in Petaluma. This man, who asked not to be identified, tells Lyons that he grew up in Petaluma — and while he's camped all over the county, it's the only city he considers home. A friend recently helped him get a new job, and he is working to pull himself out of homelessness, which is not an easy task in Petaluma.

"Do you know how much it costs to rent a place here?" the man scoffs. "But this is my home, it's where I work. I need to be here."

The man, who appeared to be in his 30s, although his face is weathered from years on the street, says he regularly frequents the Mary Isaak Center, run by the Committee on the Shelterless, where he can grab a bite to eat, take a warm shower or get some clean clothes. The center helps hundreds of transients every month, but resources are limited and wait lists are two months long to get a bed at the Petaluma shelter.

In search of a more efficient way to help those most in need, COTS recently partnered with the County of Sonoma to identify the most vulnerable homeless people living in Sonoma County, those who are chronically ill, over the age of 60 and have been living outside for six months or more. It is part of a national effort by the nonprofit Common Ground and its 100,000 Homes campaign, which seeks to find permanent housing for 100,000 of the country's most vulnerable transients.

"They've already housed over 90,000 people all across the country," said Jenny Abramson of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, which is coordinating the campaign with $25,000 in funds provided by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

Organizing the local effort is a logistical challenge; the county is looking for 125 volunteers to go out and survey about 1,700 homeless people with the help of a paid guide. The guides are mostly people who are or used to be homeless themselves, who can take surveyors to the often hidden places where transients are known to camp and congregate.

"It's going to require really beating the bushes all over (to find people). It'll definitely be a challenge," said Mike Johnson, CEO of COTS, who said he's hopeful the process will be successful because it has the potential to save lives.

"There are people who are at a serious risk of dying in the streets — if they don't get help, they're going to die," he said.

On average, Johnson said, 30 homeless people die in the streets every year in Sonoma County. Petaluma has seen four such deaths in six months, including the yet to be identified skeletal remains of a woman found near McNear Peninsula and Jonathan Wagers, who was found dead in a drainage ditch on March 6. These deaths, Johnson said, may have been prevented had COTS known which clients were at the highest risk.

"Every single one of those people, without question, were the most vulnerable of Sonoma County's homeless," he said. "I hope (the 100,000 Homes campaign) saves a lot of lives, I really do. This is the first concerted effort to really get a handle on the situation and find out how big of a problem it is in Sonoma County."

Abramson said she is hoping to get 22 volunteers from Petaluma to conduct the surveys in the city in mid-April. While most of the county will be polling people April 7, 8 and 9, the Petaluma Police Department had already planned a sweep of homeless camps in early April, so organizers are waiting until that's complete to survey Petaluma's transients, which will take place April 11, 12 and 13.

"We're trying to locate all of the camps, particularly the ones around the SMART (train) rights-of-ways, along the river and on any Caltrans properties," said Lyons of the sweep, explaining that the department is working with COTS to clean up the camps, many of which are littered with everything from discarded food packaging to human waste.

Survey volunteers will be trained on how to conduct the survey and work with the homeless to get information about their medical conditions and personal history. A notoriously insular community, Abramson said the volunteers will offer transients grocery store gift cards if they agree to participate in the survey.

Once completed, the data will allow both the county and various homeless agencies such as COTS to rank their homeless clients by who is most at risk. Each person would be given a number that designates how vulnerable that individual is based on a wide variety of factors.

Abramson said of the roughly 3,200 homeless people living in Sonoma County, about 1,000 said they would live indoors if that was an option. "With 1,000 people who want to come inside, we need to know who is most in need," she said.

Johnson agreed it would be a useful tool, both to determine how to most effectively allocate COTS' resources, and to bring attention to the issue of homelessness and what can be done to reduce it.

"There's a huge number of people who are out there and are going to perish is something isn't done," he said. "Efforts like this put a spotlight on the issue and inspire people to care about what happens to them."

Those interested in volunteering to conduct surveys should contact Abramson at 565-7548 or Jenny.Abramson@sonoma-county.org, or sign up online at http://sonoma-county-homelesscount.wikispaces.com/Volunteer+Information.

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@arguscourier.com)

UPDATE: This story was updated to include the dates of when the survey will taking place in Petaluma, April 11, 12 and 13.