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Survey: A third of Petaluma's homeless at 'high risk'


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.

"It was a huge project, it was an overwhelming project," Abramson said last week. To get it done, her agency has partnered with a national organization called Common Ground, whose 100,000 Homes Campaign is providing survey, registry and methodology tools. An enormous database — which will include Petaluma's information — is being compiled, to include medical and other information crucial to identifying and helping the homeless population's most vulnerable members.

While all homeless people are considered vulnerable, Johnson said, the "high mortality risk" category indicates a homeless person's "likelihood that they're going to die out there. That's kind of the point: Being able to assess the likelihood of people perishing on the street."

Once that's determined, advocates will begin the second phase of the plan: finding permanent housing for those people. Advocates will ask, "What are the available housing options, and what's most appropriate for them?" Johnson said. "And then we try and match the two up."

"We're right on the threshold of doing that," he said.

Unfortunately, the survey effort in Petaluma was hampered by some bad timing. "The police had been doing some sweeps just prior to us going out to look," Johnson explained.

Lt. Lyons said police had long-standing plans to conduct the April sweep in order to clear out homeless encampments, "particularly the ones around the SMART (train) rights-of-ways, along the river and on any Caltrans properties."

Even without the logistical issues, counting precise numbers of homeless people can be problematic, in part because it depends on how one defines "homeless." A countywide census in 2013 counted 4,280 "homeless individuals" throughout Sonoma County, with 77 percent of them defined as "unsheltered."

But with the Vulnerability Survey, raw data replaces ambiguity. Among those surveyed in Petaluma, 14 percent said they visited an emergency room at least four times in the last six months – yet more than half lack medical insurance. A third said they were frequent hospital users, while well over three quarters — 77 percent — said they had been jailed at some point.

Johnson said the people surveyed were "absolutely" an accurate cross-section of the 200 or so homeless people estimated to be living in Petaluma.

Such people are in dire need of help, he said, and it's not just homeless advocates who can help them.

"If (you) run across folks that are out there who look like they're in really bad shape, contact police or one of the local service providers," Johnson advised. "It breaks my heart that people are dying out there, and a lot of times could be helped, if people would just speak up."

For more information on the Vulnerable Survey, go to sonoma-county-homelesscount.wikispaces.com. COTS can be reached at cots-homeless.org or by calling 765-6530.