Fernando (no last name given), 56, who has been homeless and living in Pasadena streets for five years, talks about his plight during survey by the city of Pasadena through Project Housed and the Pasadena Salvation Army on Tuesday, August 9, 2011.

Fernando (no last name given), 56, who has been homeless and living in Pasadena streets for five years, talks about his plight during survey by the city of Pasadena through Project Housed and the Pasadena Salvation Army on Tuesday, August 9, 2011. (Raul Roa/Staff Photographer)

Sean Sauceda moved quickly through dry brush near a Pasadena freeway off ramp before dawn Tuesday morning, looking for the homeless people most at risk of dying on city streets. He stopped to peer inside a cluster of bushes.

“People hollow them out by breaking the branches inside,” Sauceda said as he snapped a branch. “It’s natural shelter. It’s large enough where you can fit a dome tent inside of it. I’ve done it.”

Sauceda, 41, a Fresno-area native, lived on the streets of Los Angeles for 13 years. In May he moved into transitional housing with the help of the county program Housing Works.

Sauceda was among 100 volunteers who spent three days this week identifying the city’s 20 most vulnerable people as part of a campaign called Project Housed Pasadena. The goal is to provide services, place the people in housing and keep them there with the hope of stemming chronic homelessness. Housing Works will provide vouchers and services for the 20 people selected, and plans to help 20 more in a second wave.

About 44% of the homeless people surveyed, 58 out of 131, were found to have high mortality risks such as being HIV/AIDS-positive, being over the age of 60 or visiting the emergency room more than three times in the past three months.

On average, the members of the most vulnerable population had been homeless for seven years, and the less vulnerable lived on the streets about four years. Thirty-seven were older than 55, and 15 had a history of foster care.

Twenty-four of the 131 were veterans, researchers said.

“For the people we surveyed in the streets, the system has unfortunately failed and we’re looking to do something about it,” said Ann Lansing, a project planner for Pasadena.

The survey also found that emergency room visits and hospital stays for homeless people cost the city more than $3.1 million annually.

Project Housed Pasadena is part of a nationwide campaign to house 100,000 homeless people and families by July 2013. It was developed by Northern California-based Community Solutions, which partners with local and national organizations.

“Pasadena is committed to doing its share of housing the 20 most vulnerable individuals,” Mayor Bill Bogaard said. “I know how difficult it is for people who are homeless to maintain stability, and availability of housing is an important first step.”

By identifying the people who are most vulnerable, the city, non-profits and faith-based organizations can effectively direct resources to them, Lansing said.

Fernando Ruiz has been homeless since 2004 and battles depression. When surveyors awakened him, he was near an apartment building on the edge of Old Town Pasadena, his bare feet sticking out of a red sleeping bag.

“It’s a very debilitating condition,” Ruiz said of his depression. “It’s not just mental, it’s also physical.”

Ruiz said he used to do clerical work at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Los Angeles. “My main concern is getting off the streets, and once I do that, I can make other plans.”

Having a stable home gives people the stability to tackle other issues, such as getting job training, treatment for mental illness or learning basic living skills, Mollie Lowery, program director for Housing Works, said.

“If you’ve been living on the streets, you’ve adapted to a way of living that’s not particularly conducive to living in an apartment,” Lowery said. “It’s really important to work with them on things like how to go shopping at a store.”

Sauceda knows finding housing can have a lasting impact, but admits he’s still adapting.

“Having a home does a lot; it gives people hope,” he said. “I still need to get used to a bed. Sometimes I still use the floor, but it’s getting better.”