The number of homeless families with children in Sonoma County has declined by 20 percent from 2011 to 2013, according to preliminary results from the latest county-wide homeless count.

Conducted every two year, the count also found that the overall homeless population declined by 6 percent from 4,539 to 4,280 people -- although the change is within the margin of error. The results of the count, which was conducted on Jan. 25, will be presented to the Board of Supervisors today.

The drop in the number of families was good news to those who conducted the count.

"It's huge. It's great. For a long time our providers have agreed that this was a high priority. People have been working very hard" trying to keep families from becoming homeless, said Jenny Abramson, coordinator of the Sonoma County Continuum of Care, a broad-based coalition of county agencies, local organizations and individuals responsible for the biennial homeless count.

Abramson said the decline in homeless families with children was likely a result of the federal Rapid Rehousing Program, an initiative that provides an injection of case management and rental assistance to quickly get families off the street or to escape homelessness altogether.

It keeps families from becoming "acculturated" to living in emergency shelters, cars, or in someone's living room or garage, Abramson said, adding that it also saves money.

"It's on the order of a few hundred dollars a month," while the "actual cost of keeping that family in shelter is much more," she said.

The total number of homeless individuals in families was 451, or 11 percent of the total homeless population. Well over half, 260, are children.

This year's count included a more accurate tally of homeless teenagers and young adults under 25. This includes 277 unaccompanied teenagers under 18 and 851 young people between 18 and 24.

Combined with the 260 homeless children who were part of families, nearly one in three homeless people in Sonoma County are under 25.

"We have a very large number of young people who are at great risk for the rest of their lives," Abramson said.

Other findings in the report include:

9 percent of all homeless, or 400 people, are veterans, the same as two years ago.

86 percent of homeless veterans were "sheltered," up from 81 percent in 2011.

The number chronically homeless increased from 22 percent to 27 percent.

Also, 67 percent of homeless people reported experiencing at least one medical condition; 35 percent reported alcohol or drug abuse; and 21 percent said their were receiving, or had received, mental health treatment.

"There's a lot of health needs that aren't being met," said Peter Connery, vice president of Applied Survey Research, which conducted the actual count. Connery, who directs his firm's homeless research, said there was a significant increase in the number of people using local community health centers.

In 2011, almost 20 percent of homeless people surveyed said they had sought medical care from community health centers or free clinics. This year, the figure is more than 27 percent.

Meanwhile, the share of homeless people who use local emergency rooms for medical care declined slightly from almost 32 percent to about 28 percent.

In late 2011, Santa Rosa Community Health Centers and Catholic Charities launched a combined health center and emergency shelter for homeless people who are discharged from a hospital but have nowhere to recover.

Abramson said the West County Health Centers and the Petaluma Health Center have also added services for homeless patients.

"It's believable that ER visits are dropping" as a result, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com