For the first time since 2019, Orange County officials and volunteers will survey the streets and count how many people are sleeping outside or in shelters, as part of what’s usually a biennial effort to learn the actual numbers behind the region’s homelessness crisis. 

But COVID-19 prompted officials to cancel its 2021 count, known officially as point-in-time counts, creating something of a void in timely, accurate homelessness data as the most recent numbers were pre-pandemic.

And while this year the count was set to resume in January, the fourth wave of COVID-19 had County of Orange officials obtaining approval from federal housing authorities to delay the count to February. 

The count is required every other year by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development.

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Per the delay, the County of Orange will conduct a count of homeless people in shelters the night of Feb. 21, and the unsheltered starting the morning of Feb. 22 through Feb. 24.

The count is key to informing the debate across Orange County about whether efforts are moving quickly on what officials and advocates have said is key to reducing homelessness: Creating affordable housing with support services.

The last 2019 count found 2,899 people in Orange County were in an emergency or transitional shelter and 3,961 were unsheltered. More than 300 were veterans. Nearly 300 were young people. 

More than 600 were seniors. 

The count also found 466 families living on the streets.

That was before the pandemic.

“All evidence suggests an increase in unhoused people in OC, but until we actually gather the data, cities and the county will continue to point to those old 2019 numbers,” said Brooke Weitzman, an Elder Law and Disability Rights Center attorney who represents homeless people. 

In 2020, Orange County’s 2-1-1 helpline made more than 96,000 services and support referrals to callers facing homelessness or inability to pay for housing, according to data the organization has compiled.  

On top of that, the agency received nearly 2,000 requests for services that 2-1-1 couldn’t make referrals for – either because they didn’t exist, they lacked capacity, or the callers were not deemed eligible.

More than 34,000 referrals that year were made for emergency shelters, nearly 25,000 were for housing payment assistance, and more than 17,000 were for transitional housing. 

Weitzman said, “We know that through some of the non-congregate programs and through increased emergency housing vouchers and federal support for prevention and housing, there are more people becoming housed than before.” 

“But we also know more people are becoming homeless than before because of the economic difficulties from the pandemic,” Weitzman said. 

“The (point-in-time count) data is essential,” said Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee in a Wednesday phone interview, “as we not only count people and help them, but they also help us by answering a bunch of our questions.”

Chaffee, who said he participated in the last 2019 count, said “it was important data gathering. That data needs to be refreshed.” 

Chaffee said it will also be “harder now that we have COVID to ask those questions.”

Volunteers will need to provide proof of being fully vaccinated for COVID-19, or provide a negative PCR test to ensure the safety of volunteers and of people being surveyed, according to the county. 

For more information about how to volunteer or donate personal protective equipment for the safety of canvassers, click here.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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