The County, along with a handful of organizations and numerous volunteers, today begins counting the number of homeless people in each city as part of a requirement for federal funding to help combat homelessness.
“We’re actually doing the coverage of the entire county and that includes unincorporated areas,” said County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson. “We will be engaging with people on the street to chat with them … we have about 30 questions that people are going to be asked and logged on a mobile device.”
In previous counts, much of the numbers were estimates. For example, the 2017 count reported there were 466 unsheltered homeless people in Santa Ana. But when the city did its own count in March 2018, it found 1,030 unsheltered homeless people. Neither of those counts included people living at a County shelter at an abandoned bus terminal in downtown Santa Ana.
This year, those living in shelters will also be counted, Nichelson said, adding the shelter population was counted Tuesday. The counts are conducted every two years.
The count comes against the backdrop of a federal lawsuit over the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless camp evictions in January 2018. Attorneys for the homeless people, Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel, argued the move “criminalized” homelessness because people were pushed to city streets where they were ticketed for camping and loitering. Weitzman and Sobel argued since there weren’t enough shelter beds available at the time, the anti-camping and loitering ordinances should be suspended.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who’s overseeing the lawsuit, warned cities and the county against prosecuting homeless people for camping until there were enough shelter beds built. A U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in September bars prosecuting homeless people for sleeping in public places if a city or county has less shelter beds than its homeless population.
North and central county cities have been scrambling to build hundreds of shelter beds for the homeless since federal appeals court ruling. Santa Ana opened an emergency shelter in November and Anaheim opened one in December. Anaheim and Santa Ana also have plans to build more shelter beds and Placentia, Tustin and Buena Park are also trying to build shelters.
Nichelson said counting teams will be deployed to each city throughout the county, with someone driving around to locate homeless people and coordinate with other team members. From there, they will talk to the person and ask them a list of questions and log the answers, along with the location, onto a mobile device. All the information will be relayed to the central hub in Santa Ana and displayed on a digital map.
But locating homeless people could be difficult because Santa Ana and Anaheim are again enforcing anti-camping ordinances, said Anaheim activist Lou Noble, who helps advocate for homeless people.
Noble said some people may be living in drainage canals and tunnels along the Santa Ana Riverbed, near freeways and railroads.
“Everybody is kind of underground because the cops keep harassing them and putting them in jail for every little thing,” Noble said. “Ever since they started doing that, telling everybody they’re going to jail if they didn’t go to shelter, people have been hiding.”