A survey of Petaluma's homeless population has found that a third of them are at "high mortality risk," putting last winter's spate of deaths in perspective and possibly suggesting that more are coming unless something is done.
The survey, conducted last month by county-led volunteers, indicates that 32 percent of the city's approximately 200 homeless people are likely to die at any time from a variety of causes.
The volunteers explored the city on April 11, 12 and 13, searching along the riverbanks, in Cedar Grove Park, near the old Rinehart's Truck Stop in the southern part of town, and anywhere else that homeless people might be staying. Whenever they encountered homeless people, they offered grocery store gift cards in exchange for participation in the survey.
Ultimately, the volunteers contacted 100 transients and surveyed 78 of them, compiling data that advocates believe will help them save lives.
The outreach effort — known as the 2014 Sonoma County Vulnerability Survey — is in-depth enough that advocates can use the information to identify and help the most vulnerable people on Petaluma's streets. The program already has compiled data on homeless populations around the county, canvassing several different regions during the month of April. The results, advocates say, will be key in identifying which homeless people are in most immediate need of aid — information that in turn helps agencies to better direct their limited resources.
According to the survey, more than 40 percent of Petaluma's homeless are "tri-morbid," meaning they suffer from at least three different life-threatening conditions — for example, liver disease, emphysema and hepatitis C — at the same time. In addition, 68 percent of those surveyed had mental health issues, and 71 percent had substance abuse issues.
Advocates said the next challenge is getting shelter as soon as possible for the people in these high-risk categories.
Such efforts can't happen soon enough, said Mike Johnson, CEO of Petaluma's Committee on the Shelterless, or COTS. Johnson, who was once homeless himself, calls the ongoing survey "The first step to making some favorable progress to saving people's lives."
"What we've seen in the last year is a shocking number of deaths" among Petaluma's homeless population, Johnson said. Over the past 12 months, he said, "More than 18 people that we knew, that had come through our doors in the past year, have died."
In March, for example, the body of a homeless man named Jonathan Wages was found in a Petaluma drainage ditch — the seventh such death in a six-month period. In fact, so many deaths have occurred lately in Petaluma that police have stated that no foul play is suspected.
"I don't think we've had this many (bodies) found outside in the elements before," said police Lt. Tim Lyons in late March. "It's different than in the past, when we've had one or two a year."
Johnson agreed that the mortality rate has spiked from previous years, when an estimated 30 or so homeless people died annually throughout the entire county.
Countywide, the transients surveyed in April are believed to represent "somewhere around a quarter of the people who have been living outside," said Jenny Abramson, longtime head of the multi-agency Sonoma County Continuum of Care. In November, Abramson was tapped by Sonoma County government to run its Community Development Commission, resulting in her becoming lead coordinator of the Vulnerability Survey.