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At least 3,400 homeless people are sleeping on the streets of Orange County, according to unofficial numbers from the biennial Point in Time count, which finished late Thursday evening after spanning two days.

OC’s top homeless services coordinator, Susan Price, said it will be the most thorough count of the homeless population the County has ever had and the initial number will likely change because the data needs to be combed through for duplicate counts.

“This is the most accurate data the county has ever seen. It’s really the best we can humanely do,” Price said. “We’ll get the results out by April, because we have to de-duplicate (the data).”

The count, which is mandated by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development department every two years, began Thursday and was split into two shifts. The morning teams counted from 5 to 9 a.m. and the night teams counted from 7 to 11 p.m. Teams across the County repeated the count Thursday. Price estimated about 1,400 to 1,500 volunteers helped on the first day.

The unofficial count as of 11:30 pm Thursday shows central county with the highest concentration of homeless people at 1,697, followed by north county at 1,307 and south county at 418 people. Countywide, there are 199 veterans living on the streets, according to the preliminary results. 

Price said volunteers were also counting people at soup kitchens and food banks, like Mary’s Kitchen in Orange, on paper ballots so people counted there wouldn’t skew numbers in cities that have such homeless service centers. Those tallies aren’t reflected in the unofficial number. She also said shelters from across the county will send their head counts to the County sometime on Friday.

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Some counties, like San Diego, do annual homeless head counts. San Diego began counting Friday and has more than 1,500 volunteers signed up, according to public radio and television news station KPBS. San Diego’s 2018 report shows there were 8,576 homeless people, with 3,586 people in shelters and 4,990 sleeping outside — a decrease since 2017 when there were 5,621 people living outside. During that same timeframe, the number of sheltered homeless people barely grew from 3,495 to 3,586. San Diego County has a population of 3.3 million people, roughly the same size as Orange County with nearly 3.2 million, according to July 2018 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Riverside County, with a total population of 2.4 million, begins its annual count Jan. 29. The county saw a slight drop in homeless people last year, according to the 2018 homeless headcount. In 2018, Riverside County had a total of 2,316 homeless people, down from 2,406 the previous year. The county saw a slight bump in people living on the streets — in 2017 the county had 1,638 people living outdoors. That number climbed to 1,685 in 2018.

Over the last 10 years, OC’s number of people living on the streets has significantly dropped, according to estimates. In 2009, the count estimated 5,724 people living on the streets. In 2011, that estimate dropped to 4,272 and in 2013 the number fell to 1,678, before increasing to 2,201 in 2015. The number of people living outside rose to 2,584, according to the 2017 estimate — that report only goes back to 2013 for count comparisons. But none of those counts used the technique the County is employing this year, which is sending out teams to blanket the entire county. In previous years, estimates were used.

“You get out your 95 teams into all the segments and you tell them to stay there for four hours (and keep combing through the area) … and everybody, think about across 800 square miles … there’s no better way to do this,” Price said. “This is the most accurate data the county has ever seen. It’s really the best we can humanly do.”

OC’s biennial counts are conducted in late January and the 2017 full report wasn’t finished until August that year, but a snapshot of the count was released in April that year.

“The way that it’s been done every time we do this is we do release the snapshot as soon as we got it and that’s right before we send it to HUD,” Price said, noting the 2017 report didn’t come out until August that year.

“With the data being done this way, we might be able to get it (the full report) done faster,” she said.  

Headcount volunteer Tamara Jimenez, who worked morning and night shifts on both days, said she and her teammates had an easier time finding people Thursday than they did Wednesday.

“So, I’m guessing that the word got out (among the homeless community),” Jimenez said.

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 the tablets they took into the field with them.

Each time teams completed a survey and marked a homeless person’s location, the response was sent back to a central data bank and displayed as a dot on a countywide map at deployment centers in each Supervisor district. Homeless people were also given a hygiene kit containing toiletries and cleansing wipes. If they took the survey, they also got a one-day bus pass.

When Jimenez did the Wednesday morning headcount shift, she was only able to conduct roughly seven surveys, she said. But by Wednesday evening, that number climbed to 30 and by Thursday morning it increased to 36 surveys. That number was even higher Thursday evening when she and her teammates surveyed and counted roughly 56 people in the Disneyland area.

Jimenez said her experience speaking with homeless people through her job at the drug rehab center Anaheim Lighthouse helped her know where to look. She also said she had an OC Healthcare Agency worker volunteering with her and a volunteer who works for the county homeless service provider contractor, City Net.

“That was the winning combination,” Jimenez said.

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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. One woman who lives in bushes near a recycling center in Fullerton who said she prefers to live near the center because there’s people nearby if she needs help while she stays hidden to avoid dangers that come with living on the street.

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.

The board adopted this (counting method) back in August and under the context of everything going on in the county, it’s a bold move to say, ‘You know what, we want an accurate number and we’re okay if it’s higher.’ I don’t know if it will be, but we’re comfortable,” Price said.


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

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