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"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.