For about four hours early Saturday morning, more than 700 volunteers will fan out across Orange County and do their best to count the number of people who are in one fashion or another living on the street.
It is the so-called "point-in-time" homeless count, an exercise that since 2005 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has required of jurisdictions nationwide in order to receive federal grant money aimed at reducing homelessness.
The very idea that the number of homeless people in a place as vast as Orange County can be counted with any degree of accuracy in such a short span seems on many levels absurd. And some homeless advocates have been highly critical of how county officials have handled it in the past.
"I wish they would spend more time on it and have some kind of methodology," said Paul Leon, executive director of the Irvine-based Illumination Foundation, which provides services to homeless people. "It is not an efficient way to count the homeless."
That being said, Orange County has 16 million reasons to do it the way HUD wants it done, no matter how imperfectly, because that is the number of dollars in annual federal homeless assistance funds flowing into the county, according to Julia Bidwell, the county's deputy director of community services.
And one of the strings attached to this money, Bidwell said, is that there must be a count of people in emergency shelters done each year on a Saturday at the end of January and a point-in-time count every other year.
Even its harshest critics say that some count is far better than no count at all, and there is widespread acknowledgement that local officials have improved their efforts in recent years. Nonetheless, homeless advocates say the system remains deeply flawed both in terms of the length of time allotted for the count and the way volunteers interface with the homeless population.
It works like this:
Beginning at 4 a.m. Saturday, the volunteers will go to the county's various emergency shelters and various other "hot spots" where homeless people are known to congregate and tally the number they encounter, Bidwell said.
The volunteers will be assisted by a group of homeless people or formally homeless people who will inform them of likely locations of those who are homeless now, Bidwell said. County officials refer to this group as the "point-in-time (PIT) crew," and they are paid for their time with gift cards.
The whole effort will be over by about 9 a.m.
Bidwell is quick to acknowledge that the count is best described as an estimate rather than anything close to an actual census of the homeless in Orange County.
"We still can't cover the county's entire 798 square miles," she said. "It's like when they report the number of people who have the flu right now, which is an extrapolation from the number of people in the hospital."
Bidwell said officials are trying to do improve accuracy this year by getting better advance information on where homeless people are likely to be.
Steps like this are in some respects responses to past criticism from advocate groups. They were, for example, deeply suspicious of the 2011 count, which showed the number of homeless people dropping from nearly 17 percent from 2009 to 2011. It was the largest decrease reported by any county in Southern California.
"Bullshit," was how Dwight Smith, director of Isaiah House, the Catholic Worker shelter in Santa Ana, characterized that count.
However, Smith and others do credit county officials for doing a better job of training volunteers and making other improvements from the early years, when, as Leon describes, "they would just ask a college student to take an area and start counting."
But the advocates said the count can only improve so much as long as it is done over such a short window of time. To illustrate the inherent flaws in the count, Leon recalled how when he was a public health nurse he witnessed the number of homeless people in Anaheim's La Palma Park change drastically from one week to the next.
"I might visit one day and there would be 50 people in the park, but go back the next week there would be zero," he said.
Advocates insist that only way to increase accuracy is to do the count over a period of months. "If they were serious about counting homeless people, they would do it the way they do it when a congressional seat is at stake," Smith said, referring to the national census, which determines how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives.
Officials would also have to remove the fear factor of the count from the perspective of the typical homeless person, Smith said.
One key piece of information that the point-in-time count volunteers ask homeless people is where they sleep. But if they answer that question, many homeless people are putting themselves in danger of being arrested. That is because a large number of cities in Orange County have ordinances that make it a crime to camp without a permit.
Bidwell said the volunteers are instructed to try to allay those fears by telling homeless people that "this is just a count and that we are not going to do anything more than just count you and do a survey."
Smith said that expecting homeless people to believe that is wishful thinking. "You are asking people to reveal their secret spot. It only deepens the level of distrust between homeless people and police," he said.
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