Over 2,200 people are currently homeless on the streets in Orange County, according to unofficial numbers from the first day of the biennial Point in Time count, but volunteer teams reported difficulty finding homeless people.

“We’re just not finding a lot of people,” said volunteer Joseph Henry, who was trying to find people at the intersection of La Palma Avenue and Euclid Street in West Anaheim. They also looked at other nearby areas, like by the Norm’s Restaurant, neighborhood parks and areas near Disneyland where homeless people have gathered in recent weeks.

An abandoned tent containing several belongings on a private property in San Clemente. Trash, gloves and blankets were all left behind. Credit: JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

“It’s kind of shocking we haven’t really found anybody. I’m from this area … There was nobody at any of the parks, especially Maxwell Park, which is one where you would think people would be at,” Henry said, adding they had a police escort for most of their time “which might have scared people away.”

The County’s top homeless service coordinator, Susan Price, said last week’s rain storm displaced a lot of people from where the known hotspots were, making the count more difficult.

“Homeless count, it’s a moving target number one … the storm we had last week was very significant — keep in mind City Net and teams have been, since September, mapping the county,” Price said. “That storm kinda reshuffled that deck.”

Price said the hotspots that were identified were only temporary because “it’s a moving and hidden population.”

Since the last count in 2017, the county has cracked down on large homeless camps, disbursing a big one along the Santa Ana River and police have discouraged formation of other camps. Homeless people now live alone or in small groups in bushy areas or behind buildings where they may be hard to see.

The two-day headcount is required by the Federal Housing and Urban Development Department, which also provides funds to address the housing shortage. The last count estimated 4,792 homeless people lived in Orange County, 2,208 in shelters and 2,584 on the streets. The finalized 2019 count will be filed to HUD in April.

A map showing live results from the January 2019 homeless point in time count is projected on a wall. Credit: JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

Price said volunteers were at food banks and soup kitchens, like Mary’s Kitchen in Orange surveying people on paper, instead of the digital survey, so cities that host service centers don’t see their homeless counts skewed on the digital map because many people come from all over the county to use the services there. She said people will be working on the data collected to eliminate any duplicated counts.

This year for the first time, the volunteers are counting the number of homeless in each city. In the past, city numbers were estimates based on the overall county estimate.

Volunteers gathering together for the Everyone Counts – Point in Time event. They overlook the map to determine their route in South Orange County. Credit: JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

The first count started before sunrise at 5 a.m. Wednesday morning and ended at 9 a.m. The evening shift ran from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Counting crews consisted of volunteers and County homeless service contractors, like CityNet. The count will be conducted again Thursday, with the same shift schedule. Some county employees and employees from various cities also helped. Count headquarters were based in each of the County Supervisor districts and teams blanketed North, Central and South Orange County.

Each team was given a map of certain parts of a city where it was tasked with counting homeless people. The maps had markers that indicated where homeless people tend to gather — the markers were taken from data provided by police departments and homeless service providers. There was also a 29-question survey that was loaded onto people’s phones or tablets they took into the field with them and each time they completed a survey and marked a homeless person’s location, the responses were sent back to a central data bank and was displayed as dots on a countywide map at deployment centers in each Supervisor district.

City Net Vice President Matt Bates said they want to use the volunteers for as long as they can in order to get the most accurate count.

“We just want to take full advantage of the resources we have to get as much information as we can,” Bates said.  

Bates said people’s first two initials of first and last names will be collected, along with location, so when teams go out for additional counting shifts, the responses can be compared to each other and duplicate counts can be eliminated.

As of Wednesday evening, dots flooded areas throughout Central and North County, but sharply dropped east of the 55 freeway, beginning with Irvine — although there were some groupings in South County cities with concentrated rehab homes like Dana Point and Laguna Beach. Central County, like Santa Ana, had more dots than any other region. 

County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett at the 2019 homeless point in time count. Credit: JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents the bulk of South County, said the region has historically less homeless people than the rest of the county.

“South OC has historically fewer numbers than in Central and North County — but we just don’t know. The count could be different this time,” Bartlett said. “Once we get actual numbers, it will get South OC cities enough info and enough info for a plan to address the local situation and local population.”

Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy David Zill, who patrols San Clemente and surrounding areas, said there wasn’t an enforcement sweep done before the headcount, but he did drive around and look for camps Tuesday to aid in the count.

“We wouldn’t call it a sweep, it was more of a scan for possible campsites. What I did is I went to the possible ones we went to before, and said, ‘Ok, there’s no sleeping bags’ and I don’t even have the logistical ability to do sweeps right now,” Zill said.

Two homeless men take a break from panhandling to smoke a cigarette, and are joined by their two dogs near a highway exit. Credit: JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

Price said she estimates 1,400 to 1,500 volunteers drove and walked around all of Orange County to help count the homeless population.

“This is the most accurate number the County has ever seen,” Price said. “You get out your 95 teams into all the segments and you tell them to stay there for four hours … and everybody, think about it — across 800 square miles, counting … there’s no better way to do this.”

In North County, Henry said he and his teammates struggled to survey respondents in the morning.

“We haven’t really surveyed anybody. I mean I wouldn’t want to talk to anybody that early in the morning either,” Henry said, while he and fellow volunteers tried to speak with a homeless couple on the intersection of Euclid and La Palma Avenues. Instead of taking the survey, the couple instead tried to sell them watches.

In cases where people didn’t respond for a survey, the counters did an observational report instead and filled out the location of the homeless person and other basic observable details.

The Maxwell Park homeless camp was cleared out Dec. 21 when a 200-bed homeless shelter opened up near Angel stadium. City Net and Anaheim employees spoke with people living in the park and told them to go the shelter.

Vladimir Shagov, who lived at Maxwell Park, tried the shelter but found the showers soon didn’t have hot water and shelter staff don’t allow people to come in and out, he told Voice of OC Tuesday. Shagov said people are shuttled once a day to the ARTIC center, across the street from the Honda Center and along the Santa Ana Riverbed, where Shagov and many others lived until the camp was cleared in early 2018.

Shagov said police have been telling homeless people they will go to jail if people refuse the shelter, so people who aren’t in the 200-bed shelter are sleeping in hidden places like drainage canals, bushes and “anywhere else that’s hidden. If you want to find someone, just start looking in the bushes or something like that.”

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 thanks volunteers in Santa Ana Wednesday night. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

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.

Carter visited the Santa Ana deployment center at the Orange County Veterans Resource building Wednesday evening to thank volunteers. He was not part of any counting efforts.

“I’m so proud of everybody,” Carter said of the volunteers. “It’s such a great county.”

Mahindra Mohan Kumar, a Wednesday morning volunteer counter with Henry, said the shelters and enforcement sweeps made it tougher to count people because they were having difficulty finding more than one person at a time.

“I kind of had suspicions that it would be like this because of the sweeps,” Mohan Kumar said. “I guarantee you, they’ll undercount.”

A homeless man with “Free Life” tattoos on his hands smokes a cigarette while sitting by a highway in San Clemente. Credit: JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

Headcount volunteer Tamara Jimenez echoed what other volunteers said during the Anaheim morning shift.

“We were out for several hours and only got seven surveys done,” Jimenez said. She and her team started on Euclid Avenue by the 91 freeway on the edge of West Anaheim and worked their way back to the deployment center on Magnolia Avenue and Ball Road. She said they tried surveying people on the railroad tracks, but nobody came out of their tents, so they had to estimate a headcount in that area.

Jimenez said they counted roughly 30 homeless people during their four-hour shift and the hotspots on the map her team was given were outdated, but the overall count effort was much more organized than past head-counts.

More people answered the survey and were easier to locate during the night count, Jimenez said. She said they surveyed at least 30 homeless people in West Anaheim at night and counted an additional 22 as homeless, for number totaling over 50.

“It was actually pretty organized for the first time … as we came back in, they were asking what can we do to make this better,” Jimenez said. She suggested that police officers be the lead drivers for the teams because the police know where homeless people currently stay.

“Once we had the officer lead us, we were blowing through cases quick. He knew exactly where to go and where there would be people. I think making that decision to let him take the lead on driving and following him worked better,” she said.

Deputy David Zill scoping out an RV for safety before having volunteers approach the vehicle early Wednesday morning. Credit: JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

City Net homeless outreach specialist Lauren Justice said she was homeless for eight years and understands the difficulty achieving a complete count of homeless people.

“They’re definitely hiding, that’s one thing I learned from the streets is that you find a good hiding spot,” Justice said. “Whatever you had to do to be out of the eye … so people are definitely out there, moving. You’re never comfortable on the streets, you’re always on the edge.”

Jimenez, who consistently speaks with the homeless through her job at the Anaheim Lighthouse, a drug treatment program, said she expects the Wednesday night count to increase the total overall number.

Justice echoed what Jimenez said Wednesday afternoon.  

“Some people who don’t come out during the day, come out at night,” Justice said, adding a lot of people collect bottles and cans at night and recycle in the morning. “So when night hits, it’s a whole different group of people … they have their routines. So I’m thinking they’re going to get a lot of new people tonight.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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